Bama defense best of all time? Clemson's 2014 group is in the conversation
|Friday, March 24, 2017, 8:01 AM- -|
The greatest defense of all time.
Those are big words to throw out there, but we heard it a lot last season as Alabama made its run to the championship game against Clemson. That defense was good. Really, really good. But the greatest of all time? We tend to say something is the greatest of all time, but we look through the biased lenses of our era and time.
So why am I bringing this up now? Because someone emailed me late last week, and they wanted to know if I thought this year’s Clemson defense would be as good as the 2014 group that finished first nationally in total defense.
My response was typical for someone who doesn’t get caught up in hype, and who has done this kind of thing for a living for a long time. This year’s defense has potential. But there are question marks. There are holes at linebacker and safety and corner that need to be filled. We won’t know what this defense is, how good they can be, until the games start.
As I’ve mentioned, that group ended up number one nationally in total defense. They gave up 260.8 yards per game, tops in the nation, and just 4.03 yards per play, also tops in the nation. They gave up the least amount of yards, giving up 3,390 on 841 plays.
So how does that compare to what Alabama did this past season?
Alabama gave up a total of 261.8 yards per game. That’s right. One more yard per game than that Clemson group in 2014. There are outliers, of course. This Alabama team played two more games (15 to 13), and had to play Clemson’s offense.
Alabama gave up 3.99 yards per play. That’s right. A fourth of yard less than Clemson. The big difference between the two teams appears in the rushing/passing splits. Alabama was better against the run (2.01 yards per rush and 63.93 yards per game compared to Clemson’s 2014 totals of 2.97 yards per rush and 103.38 yards per game), and Clemson was better against the pass (157.4 yards per game and 5.3 yards per attempt to Alabama’s 197.9 yards per game and 5.9 per attempt).
I even went back and looked at the offenses those teams played – Alabama didn’t face a true offensive juggernaut this past season (Western Kentucky ended up 5th nationally, but they play in a lesser conference) until they played Clemson. Clemson finished 12th nationally in total offense, and the next-highest is Southern Cal, which finished 20th. Of course, Southern Cal changed quarterbacks during the season and wasn’t the same team that faced Bama in the season opener.
In 2014, the Tigers played just one team ranked in the top 20 of total offense (Georgia Tech at 20th). And while Alabama played Kent St. (125th) and Florida (116th) this past season, Clemson faced Syracuse (116th) and Wake Forest (128th) in 2014. Overall, the average finish of the offenses Alabama faced last season 43.07 nationally. Clemson faced an average offensive finish of 61 in 2014.
Some other notable stats: Alabama had 54 sacks in 2016, ahead of the 45 Clemson posted in 2014 (in two more games). Clemson had an astounding 134 tackles for loss for 553 yards lost (or 10.08 per game), while Alabama posted 118 tackles for loss for 615 yards in 2016, or 7.87 per game. Clemson holds the edge in opponents third down conversions, 27.41 percent to 30.67 for Alabama.
Both defenses were really, really good. You can go deeper into the stat comparisons and find out some really interesting things. Best ever? Heck, if you just go by stats, that Alabama defense in 2011 set the bar, giving up just 183.6 yards per game. And if you go back through the years and decades, there are plenty of defenses that can stake their claim to dominance.
But Clemson can make the case that their 2014 season was almost as good – or better – than what Alabama produced this past season. As for next season……the Tigers are loaded on the defensive line with players like Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and breakout defensive end Clelin Ferrell. At linebacker, Kendall Joseph leads a talented group that includes Dorian O’Daniel, Tre Lamar, Shaq Smith, Jamie Skalski and others.
As good as 2014? Well, that group was legendary. The 2017 defense has to write its own story, and where it ends up is anyone’s guess.
Watching them write it will be fun.