Alabama football BCS national championship commemorative section: Is this the Crimson Tide's best-ever defense?

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerJanuary 15, 2012 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It’s not clear if Darwin Holt ever met Dre Kirkpatrick. They don’t exactly run in the same circles.

But get these two former Alabama football players in a room and expect quite a debate over ranking the best defenses in program history.

Holt is a proud member of the 1961 Alabama defense that set records en route to a national title.

Then 50 years later, an equally confident Kirkpatrick came along. The cornerback helped last season’s Crimson Tide to another crown with an unapologetically brutal defense.

Capping the ride with a 21-0 embarrassment of LSU’s offense in the BCS title game, Kirkpatrick never hesitated when ranking the 2011 defense.

“I feel like we are the greatest of all time,” he said leaning back in his Superdome locker. “That’s my personal thought, and I’m going to stick with it.”

Holt might disagree. Before the season, he stood by the numbers posted in Bear Bryant’s fourth year of coaching at Alabama. Opponents managed just 22 points that season -- three touchdowns and a field goal. The 10-3 win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl was the closest anyone came to the Tide that season.

“They talk about different teams defensively and how great they were, but nobody could meet some of the things we set,” Holt said. “We set the pole up there pretty high for everyone else.”

Adjusted for inflation and the spread offense, the 2011 team at least approached that high-water mark.

Opponents scored nine offensive touchdowns on the Tide defense this season. Six came on passing plays and three on runs. Kent State scored its on a 3-yard possession following an interception, and Penn State drove on the backups late in a 27-11 beating.

Arkansas was the only SEC opponent to string together a sustained touchdown drive of more than five plays. That Razorbacks 12-snap, 63-play march came in the first quarter of the league opener. After that, the Hogs and Ole Miss each had five-play touchdown drives, and Mississippi State finished a 22-yard drive three plays after a long kickoff return. Florida scored on the first play of a 38-10 pounding.

And that was it for SEC offenses.

Vanderbilt was completely shutout in a 34-0 Alabama win. Tennessee and LSU managed just field goals in regular-season games, and Auburn scored both touchdowns on defense and special teams.

“What this defense accomplished statistically probably speaks for itself,” coach Nick Saban said. “But I love competitors … and I think that there’s a lot of talent on this defensive team, but I tell you what, these guys are great competitors and they’re warriors, and sometimes they can’t practice very well all week and I get mad at them.

“But, man, when they go to play, they play hard. They play well together. And they have a lot of pride in their performance, in what they do. And they’ve done it extremely well. Statistically, they’ve done it better than probably any group we’ve ever had.”

Statistically, the defense was overwhelming.

It led every major category on a national level by wide margins. It surrendered just 183.6 yards a game -- 78 fewer than LSU’s second-ranked defense.

The 72.1 rushing yards allowed was 10 fewer than No. 2 Florida State’s average. Alabama didn’t even lose its top spot after its worse game of the year.

Georgia Southern’s unconventional triple option rolled up a stunning 302-yard rushing total, but Alabama remained the nation’s top defense against the run.

The Tide did it with balance. Leading tackler Dont’a Hightower averaged 6.8 stops a game to fall well outside national rankings. The NCAA lists the top 100 in the country with a bottom number of 7.8.

The national championship game demolition topped it all off.

LSU crossed midfield just once and managed just 92 yards. Combined with the 9-6 overtime loss to the Tigers in November, the No. 1 team never scored a touchdown on Alabama.

“That’s something Alabama football takes pride in,” Hightower said, “Being able to shut down teams and make them one-dimensional. That’s what we did in big games.”

But could it top what the 1961 team did before substitution rules allowed separate offensive and defensive units? It’s impossible to say, but Holt was quick to defend his era back in August.

He points to a 2007 story published on MSNBC.com that ranked the ’61 Alabama defense the best in college football history.

“It’s all tackling and running, and we did all those things,” Holt said. “It doesn’t matter what you line up in.”

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