TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was the day after the Sugar Bowl, when most University of Alabama fans were still in a hung-over state—and not necessarily from spending another New Year’s holiday in New Orleans.
Alabama had just been eliminated from the inaugural College Football Playoff by Ohio State, and the numbers the defense had yielded were still standing out like a bright shining light: 537 total yards, 23 first downs, 10 of 18 third-down opportunities converted.
The Crimson Tide went from being ahead 21-6 to giving up 28 unanswered points, although the last touchdown was on an interception return.
Capping the 42-35 victory for the Buckeyes was an uncharacteristic 85-yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott.
So while it was still fresh in his mind, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart picked up the phone and called one of the key people from the other side, Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who was about to start prepping for the title game and then take over the head coaching job at Houston.
“Coach Herman was really good to us,” Smart said. “Very beneficial to us. They helped because they looked at us so long and did such a good job against us.”
In addition to Smart asking, “Where are we vulnerable?” and “What did you see?” while picking his brain, the programs took things another step during the offseason.
Per Nick Saban’s invitation, Herman was a guest speaker during Alabama’s annual coaching clinic in the spring, and the entire Houston staff—including former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Major Applewhite—visited.
Stew Milne/Associated Press
Houston head coach Tom Herman was happy to swap ideas with Alabama during the offseason.
Lane Kiffin led the Crimson Tide’s offensive coaches on a trip to Houston for another swap of ideas.
Although all of that that sounds unusual, it’s actually not. A lot of programs have coaching exchanges, and Alabama regularly calls opposing coaches the day after they play—especially if it’s a nonconference opponent.
Smart already plans to call Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph after the season opener in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 5 (8 p.m. ET, ABC). Chances are he’ll get some good intel since the only way they could play again over the next few years is in the playoff.
“There are no secrets,” Herman told both Chris Vannini of CoachingSearch.com. “There’s no magic formulas. There’s no kryptonite.”
Combined with extensive self-evaluation, which is also part of Saban’s coaching process, Alabama has subsequently targeted three areas for improvement by the defense this season: turnovers, big plays and third downs.
“Last year’s group was the worst goal-wise of the last seven years,” Smart said, and the numbers back that up.
In the four “major” defensive categories—total defense, pass efficiency defense, rushing defense and scoring defense—which Alabama led the nation in during the 2011 season, the defense had some of its worst national rankings since Saban’s first year at the Capstone in 2007.
Alabama’s National Defensive Rankings, Year-By-Year
|Year||Total D||Pass-Eff. D||Rushing D||Scoring D|
Compiled from national statistics on NCAA.com
The most dramatic drop has been in pass efficiency defense, which was No. 30 nationally in 2014 and considered average by Southeastern Conference standards.
“We gave up explosive runs, which is a team defense thing,” Saban said. “We gave up some explosive passes, which sometimes we made mistakes in the secondary and didn‘t have enough respect for the deep part of the field. Other times we made mental errors.”
Additionally, for the first time since 2008, Alabama didn’t at least tie for the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense and total defense. Both streaks had been the longest in league history.
It improved in turnovers gained, ranking 80th in 2013 and 65th last season, but dropped in turnover ratio to minus-two, and slipped in third-down defense from 24th in 2013 to 41st in 2014.
Alabama’s Third-Down Defense
“Third down is all about will and want-to,” senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “It’s all about effort.”
Specifically, opponents converted 82 of 217 opportunities (37.8 percent). All three of those numbers were up from the previous year (61 of 176, 34.7 percent), which translated into more opportunities and points.
In 14 games last season, Alabama defenders were on the field for 945 plays, resulting in 4,598 yards for averages of 4.9 yards per play and 328.4 per game. That’s up across the board (771 plays, 3,725 yards, 4.83 YPP and 286.5 YPG in 2013).
For a little perspective, consider that opponents converted 45 of 184 third-down opportunities for 24.5 percent in 2011. The Crimson Tide defense was only on the field for 720 plays, during which it gave up 2,287 yards, 3.32 per snap and 183.6 per game.
Here’s the difference on the scoreboard: In 2011, opponents scored just 11 offensive touchdowns compared to 24 last season.
“Obviously the game has changed, the teams we’re playing have changed and we’ve had to evolve with it,” Smart said. “We’ve got to do more things, we’ve got to play more split-safety coverages, you’ve got to help your corners in a lot of different ways. And we’ve got to continue to grow in that area so we don’t give up big plays, don’t put those guys in tough situations. Which I did last year, probably too often.”
Total Snaps by Alabama Opponents
Compiled from Alabama’s annual statistics
So Alabama changed its recruiting approach to focus less on specialists and more on every-down defenders, and it added former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker as its defensive backs coach.
Turnovers are being emphasized like never before during training camp, and Smart—who not long ago was considered one of the hottest coaching prospects in college football—has his best group of cornerbacks since the national championship teams.
The one thing Alabama hasn’t done is alter its defensive goals even though scoring is up, particularly in the SEC. By giving up 16.0 points per game last season, Ole Miss led the nation. Meanwhile, Alabama’s 18.4 was sixth.
Yet the Crimson Tide’s goal remains 13 or fewer points allowed for every game.
“We feel like we can do that regardless of what the other team does, if we execute,” Saban said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.