NEW ORLEANS — Alabama coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have fielded some of the most formidable, suffocating defenses modern college football has seen since the pair arrived in Tuscaloosa together in 2007.
The 2014 Crimson Tide defense won’t likely be remembered among them. There have already been too many blown coverages and too many yards piled up by opponents.
Yet Smart still likes the way his unit has responded when its margin for error was thinnest.
“I don’t know where they rank. I think they’re different in that they’re more resilient,” Smart said when asked how his unit compares to those of years past. “We’ve given up more big plays than the really, really good [defenses of the past].”
The last time Alabama played a high-stakes game in the Superdome, the Tide kept LSU on its own side of the 50 during most of a 21-0 national championship triumph in 2012.
— Landon Collins, Alabama safety
The Tide (12-1) will be back in the same venue on Thursday night, this time to meet Ohio State (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl, which doubles this season as a national semifinal in the first College Football Playoff.
While Smart remembers his 2011 defense as “probably the best I’ve ever been around,” he stressed that this season’s unit “really believes in itself” and never quits.
“They do a really good job of staying within themselves and not panicking,” he said.
Tight victories against Arkansas and LSU provided evidence that Alabama’s defense could firm up in critical situations.
Safety Landon Collins made a late interception to help the Tide squeeze out a 14-13 victory against the Razorbacks.
The Tide also forced LSU to settle for a field goal after the Tigers had recovered T.J. Yeldon’s fumble on the Alabama 6-yard line with 1:13 left in regulation. The stand allowed the Tide to rally for a game-tying kick in the final seconds of regulation and a victory in overtime.
“We’re always going to fight through adversity and that’s the best thing we’ve seen that this team has done,” Collins said. “We all just came together as a brotherhood and knew what we had to do and what our common goal was.”
The Iron Bowl didn’t go very well for Collins and Co., either. Auburn passed for 456 yards and Alabama had to rally from a two-score hole in the third quarter to post a 55-44 victory.
“They got exposed,” Smart said of his secondary. “Auburn did a great job passing the ball, throwing it deep on us. … They challenged us vertically down the field and we didn’t make some plays we should have made.”
Smart said Ohio State’s speed, ability and depth at receiver rivals — and may exceed — what Auburn had. And although Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones began the season as a third-stringer, he proved he can throw deep.
“A lot of teams think they can come out and pick on our secondary,” Alabama defensive back Cyrus Jones said. “It’s up to us to strap down defensively and hold it down on the back end.”
Smart said the defensive standard at Alabama is to hold opponents to 13 points or less by forcing turnovers, stopping the run and not giving up big plays.
The Tide hasn’t quite lived up to that this season, but isn’t that far off, either. Its run defense ranks second nationally, allowing 88.6 yards per game. The Tide’s 16.6 points allowed per game ranks fourth nationally. Even the 223.8 yards passing per game Alabama has given up was low enough for the Tide to rank 11th nationally — third in the Southeastern Conference — in total defense (312.4 yards per game) through 13 games.
Since arriving in New Orleans over the weekend, the Buckeyes have resisted any temptation to point out Alabama’s defensive flaws, instead saying how impressed they are with the size and ability of the Tide’s front, the athleticism of its defensive backfield and the unit’s command of its scheme.
“They are a very good defense,” Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “They don’t do a whole lot of crazy things schematically. They know what they want to do and they do it well and execute. It’s going to be a good challenge for us”