On November 18, 2006, #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan played in the most-hyped edition of The Game in its long and storied history. The Buckeyes entered the contest with a scoring average of 36 points, while the Wolverines, with the nation's #1 rushing defense, allowed only 12 points per game. Something had to give.
During that game, Ohio State exploited a fundamental issue with the Michigan defense, namely a lot of big slow linebackers and defensive backs with questionable coverage skills. Lloyd Carr and his defensive staff had assembled a group that was very adept at stuffing the inside running game, but was susceptible to misdirection, edge pressure, and a dynamic passing attack. The Buckeyes were successful in exposing Michigan's defense to the tune of 42 points and 503 yards of total offense.
On the other hand, Ohio State showed in that game that their own defense was trying to evolve into the kind that could stop a high-powered offense, but subsequent events soon proved that the Buckeyes weren't anywhere near ready for a good challenge.
After beating Michigan to complete a perfect regular season, Ohio State earned a berth in the 2006 National Championship Game against the Florida Gators. In that game, Ohio State's, and consequently the Big Ten's, reputation was destroyed by Urban Meyer’s spread offense. The 41-14 ass-kicking gave ESPN a chance to drive clicks with their "SEC Speed" marketing campaign.
Now nearly a decade later the narrative has changed, from "SEC Speed" to "SEC Big Boy football". Led by conference stalwarts Alabama, LSU, and Georgia, the ground-and-pound offenses of the current SEC are very similar to the slow, plodding offenses that the B1G used to specialize in. In other words, the kind of offenses that gave the B1G the reputation as a substandard, un-athletic, behind-the-times football conference.
As a result of the paradigm shift in the SEC, the kings of Big Boy Football (Alabama) are highly specialized in stopping it. The Crimson Tide are built to stop one-dimensional conference foes like LSU, not dynamic spread teams like the 2006 Florida Gators or the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes.
Since 2008, Alabama has an incredible 84-11 record (.884 winning percentage) and three national championships. During that span, the Crimson Tide have finished no worse than 10th nationally in rushing defense (with five top-5 finishes), and no worse than 12th in total defense (with six top-5 finishes). Twenty-four Alabama defenders have been drafted into the NFL in the past seven years, with eight being selected in the first round and four more being selected in the second round. Needless to say, Alabama has had a top-notch defense during the Nick Saban era.
However, even a genius like Nick Saban can have his flaws. By my count, only 5 of the 14 teams in the SEC run a hurry-up, no huddle offense, but that style of play has simply shredded Saban's "Big Boy" defense in recent years. The first chinks in the Tide's armor were exposed by none other than Johnny Manziel, who had 345 total yards in Texas A+M's 29-24 upset win over Alabama in 2012. The next year, the Aggies' mobile quarterback was a one-man wrecking crew against the Crimson Tide, accounting for 562 total yards and 5 touchdowns, while rangy wide receiver Mike Evans took the top off the Bama defense with 7 receptions for 279 yards, an unbelievable 40 yards per catch. Although the Tide survived the Aggie onslaught, 49-42, the vaunted Alabama defense surrendered more points in a game than it had in a decade, and the most total yards (628) ever.
In 2014, the Bama defense continued to show signs of weakness in relatively narrow wins against West Virginia (393 yards), Tennessee (383 yards), and Mississippi State (428 yards). Then the Tide imploded against Auburn (44 points and a school-worst 630 yards, including 456 through the air) and Ohio State (42 points and 537 yards).
So why has Alabama, a supposedly great defensive team, had such egregious lapses during the past few seasons? Alabama's roster is full of overgrown LB's (starters average 259 pounds) and run-stuffing safeties (starters average 217 pounds). It is also devoid of elite pass rushers or lock down corners. Why? Because Bama's defense is built to stop between-the-tackles running attacks like Georgia and LSU, not diverse spread attacks that pressure a defense both vertically and horizontally like Auburn and Ohio State employ.
Urban Meyer, the master of the spread offense, should know how to defend one. Meyer has installed a smaller, quicker, more mobile defense (DL's averaged 278 pounds; LB's 242 pounds; safeties 207 pounds) that is designed to create TFL's and negative plays but sometimes gives up big plays and quick scores. Meyer's philosophy is essentially the polar opposite of the Saban's approach, which involves keeping everything in front of you with a wall of humanity with big guys crashing down hill to make plays.
It would seem Meyer’s philosophy is the right one, at least when it comes to stopping dynamic spread offenses. That being said, as the title states these things are cyclical. It takes time to change the roster from one thing to another, and I for one have no doubt that Saban is smart enough to see this, and that he is actively making the adjustments necessary to stop the spread. In the meantime, Saban is going to be vulnerable to spread offenses much as he has been over the past three years, ever since Johnny Football first exposed his defense.
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