TUSCALOOSA — Three weeks ago, Alabama’s defense allowed 647 yards, 48 points and itself to become the unit that justified questions about the Tide's national championship aspirations.
Now, Alabama has allowed fewer than 647 yards in its last two games combined and fewer than 48 points in its last three games combined.
What remains to be seen is if it’s a permanent change of fortunes or a product of its competition.
Alabama’s beleaguered defense enters its open week after its two best performances of the season, holding Tennessee to 4.79 yards a play and Mississippi State to 3.17 yards a play. Its recent run of success comes against offenses that clearly do not present some of the elements that proved problematic earlier in the season — and could be presented by better opponents in the future — thus making for a murky picture of the unit going into the closing stretch of the season.
“I feel like we have a lot more work to do. We’re taking the right steps in the right direction to get where we want to be,” inside linebacker Dylan Moses said. “We have a lot of young guys on our defense and it’s us getting used to playing off of each other. Each and every game that goes by, the more comfortable we get playing with each other and playing off of each other.”
In stifling the Vols, Alabama showed it can stuff run-first offenses that value time of possession. Since the start of last season, seven of the Volunteers’ 44 touchdown drives have taken at least 11 plays; they have also engineered nine drives of 11 plays or more that ended in field goals and five more that ended in a punt or turnover.
Against Mississippi State, UA showed it can slow down the air raid the same way most other schools have: rush just three players to drop eight back in coverage. Playing that way did force many open-field tackling scenarios, which the Crimson Tide struggled with early in the season but did well against the Bulldogs.
While many modern offenses have pass concepts inspired by air raid principles, Mississippi State is the only school Alabama will face the rest of the season that comes close to operating in it exclusively. Saban made a similar point, while also outlining the benefits of the performance in other respects.
“The way we played the game today, you’re begging them to run the ball, basically the way we played,” Saban said. “I don’t think you can play that way against most teams, but I think the confidence the players gain from going out there getting a shutout in this day and age is a real positive thing for this defense.
“It’s a positive sign that the players were able to do the things that were a little different and execute them well against a pretty prolific passing team.”
As the Tide is left to wonder how much of its recent defensive success is based on its own performance versus its opponents, it may be without a true answer for several more weeks.
Alabama’s first opponent out of the open week is a 2-3 LSU team that has mustered fewer than 3 yards a carry in three of its five games — conveniently, its three losses. A game against Kentucky, with one of the worst offenses in the nation (90th of 103 in yards per play) follows. Auburn and Arkansas are better, but neither are currently top 40 nationally in yards per play, and a rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game could still leave UA relatively untested defensively.
The offensive principles that proved problematic in UA’s opening games against Missouri, Texas A&M and Ole Miss? Alabama may not face them again until the College Football Playoff. There is something to be said for handling the offenses presented to you, but they may not establish anything in terms of the Tide's ability to contain fellow powerhouses such as Clemson and Ohio State — and thus, may not establish anything in terms of UA’s national championship hopes.