Alabama’s quarterback battle remains one of the most talked about storylines of the college football offseason. The reasons why are fairly obvious: Said battle will extend into preseason camp and has been the subject of grad transfer rumors involving Braxton Miller and Everett Golson. Here’s a question, though: Is it really that important who the Tide’s starting quarterback is in Week 1?
If anything, Alabama’s recent history under head coach Nick Saban has shown that defense is the pavement on which national championship runs are constructed. If the Tide want to get back to a national championship game in 2015-16, their defensive line is going to be position group that gets them there.
Why? Because it’s a group loaded with talent and depth and because it will be the first line of defense for all the talented run games Alabama will face this year.
By Saban’s own admission, “The defensive front is probably the strength,” of the team, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports. And if you get a “probably” from Saban, that means he thinks highly of it.
The quarterback position is fussed over certainly. There’s good reason for that. No other position touches the ball on pretty much every play.
However, it could be considered wasted breath. Having an experienced quarterback isn’t a necessity to win a national championship. Since 2009, four of the six national championship-winning quarterbacks were first-year starters. A fifth, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, was the third-string quarterback to start the 2014 season.
(And technically there’s no guarantee Jones will start for the Buckeyes in ’15.)
|2014||Ohio State||Cardale Jones||2|
|2013||Florida State||Jameis Winston||13|
The starts alone don’t tell the whole story, of course. Cam Newton and Jameis Winston were special players. Newton was one-and-done at Auburn. Similarly, if Winston was able to leave for the NFL after his redshirt season in 2013, he probably would have been a high draft pick. But the idea is that experience at the quarterback position isn’t some sort of prerequisite to winning a national title over the past several years.
Having a great D-line, on the other hand, is paramount. Even if overall defensive stats aren’t superb—since football is now geared almost entirely toward offensive success, what defines a great defense has changed—controlling the line of scrimmage up front allows defenses to get creative elsewhere.
Within Alabama’s defense, the D-line’s job is to be the immovable object. It has the players to do that.
By now, the starting three—Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson—are household names. Even the backups—D.J. Pettway, Darren Lake and Dalvin Tomlinson—are good enough that there shouldn’t be a huge drop-off, if any.
But as Charlie Potter of 247Sports notes, Alabama’s depth along the D-line goes even further than that: “But that’s only the two-deep defensive line. We haven’t mentioned younger players like Da’Shawn Hand, Josh Frazier and O.J. Smith, who put together strong springs. They would likely crack the two-deep at any other school in the country.”
When you have the kind of depth Alabama does, injuries don’t cripple productivity—not unless that unit is decimated by them. Rotating players means fresher bodies late in games and late in the season. Traditionally under Saban, when Alabama has been good up front, it’s had a lot of success:
|Year||Run Defense (Rank)||Pass Defense (Rank)||Scoring Defense (Rank)||Sacks Per Game (Rank)||Turnover Margin (Rank)|
|2012||2.43 YPR (1st)||6.1 YPA (16th)||10.9 PPG (1st)||2.5 (29th)||+14 (T-10th)|
|2011||2.43 YPR (2nd)||4.3 YPA (1st)||8.2 PPG (1st)||2.3 (30th)||+8 (T-20th)|
|2009||2.83 YPR (6th)||5.2 YPA (T-2nd)||11.7 PPG (2nd)||2.2 (44th)||+19 (4th)|
Past trends aren’t always an indication of future success, but Alabama’s prior defensive stats could hold true for 2015. As Phil Steele tweeted recently, the Tide have the toughest schedule in the country:
Top 10 toughest schedule 2015
— Phil Steele (@philsteele042) May 14, 2015
Several of Alabama’s upcoming opponents have star running backs and/or excellent run games: Wisconsin (Corey Clement), Georgia (Nick Chubb), Arkansas (Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins), Tennessee (Jalen Hurd), LSU (Leonard Fournette) and Auburn (Roc Thomas, Jovon Robinson).
For many of those teams, if you stop the run, you stop the offense.
That’s good news, because if there’s any question mark in Alabama’s defense, it’s the secondary. When you don’t put up huge sack numbers (Alabama doesn’t), that requires a lot of confidence in the secondary’s ability to shut down receivers.
If Alabama is going to make another run at a playoff spot and take home another national championship, the defensive line is the group that will be the rock on which others will lean.
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin deserves the benefit of the doubt that he can take the new-look offense and make it at least a serviceable group if not a formidable one. Whomever Alabama goes with at quarterback, the offense should be fine.
But it’s the defense that will take Alabama to the top of the college football mountain, and the D-line will be the ones leading the way.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.