Alabama’s defense not only delivered some payback to Clemson but a strong statement entering next week’s national-championship game.
For all the injuries and departed stars, the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide’s ‘D’ still is tops in college football.
The defense certainly looked the part Monday night’s 24-6 Sugar Bowl throttling of No. 1 Clemson, which had been ‘Bama’s Kryptonite the past two years with quarterback Deshaun Watson running the show.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said the only comparable defensive effort he can remember in his nearly 11-year tenure came in the 2011 national championship game against LSU, a 21-0 win.
“I thought the defense played with sort of a ferocious, relentless, I won’t be denied kind of attitude in the way they competed in the game,” Saban said Tuesday. “I’d say those two probably rank up there with the best of them.”
This injury-riddled group powered the Tide to a national championship matchup with fellow Southeastern Conference power No. 3 Georgia in Atlanta with Monday night’s 24-6 victory. The next big challenge will be contending with Georgia’s dual 1,000-yard rushers Nick Chubb and Sony Michel next Monday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
That Sugar Bowl performance wasn’t just payback, but an emphatic reminder that this Alabama defense is still awfully formidable even if it has been far from full-strength since a string of injuries that began in the opener against Florida State.
“We had wanted to prove ourselves to the world, because I think we felt a little disrespected,” said defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, one of the main contributors in that performance.
The game turned on two — three, really — huge plays by defenders Payne and Mack Wilson in a whirlwind span of the third quarter. Payne made an interception and then caught a TD pass after coming in for the goal line package. Mack Wilson, who had been out with a foot injury late in the regular season, then scored on a pick-six 13 seconds later.
Plus, the defense racked up five sacks of Kelly Bryant. Saban said the defensive line played as well as it had all year.
“During the week, coach put emphasis on just being destructive in our pass rushing and just keeping in our pass rushing lanes and making sure that we get after them,” Payne said afterward. “And I think we did a good job of locking in during the practice and just getting after them as a whole defense.”
The defense is still far from 100 percent. Linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and safety Hootie Jones remain out. Linebacker Anfernee Jennings’ status is uncertain with a sprained left knee sustained in the Sugar Bowl, and Saban said he and guard Lester Cotton (right knee) were evaluated Tuesday in Birmingham.
Plus, seven of last season’s stars having moved on to the NFL and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s pending departure as Tennessee’s new head coach .
With all that, Alabama still leads the nation in run, scoring and total defense and ranks third against the pass.
The Tide exorcised some demons against Bryant and the Tigers. A Watson-less offense that had abused Alabama for 1,000-plus yards combined in the past two national championship games produced just 188 total yards and 64 on the ground.
“It was awesome,” said linebacker Christian Miller, who missed most of the season with a biceps injury. “From outside in, everybody played tremendous. Our goal was to come out and play fast, physical and relentless and get back to how we started the season off.”
The next challenge: A top-10 rushing offense that ran wild in a 54-48 overtime victory over No. 2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
Alabama (12-1) vs. Georgia (13-1)
Kickoff: 8 Monday, Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Line: Alabama by 4