The 2011 National Champion Crimson Tide built its reputation on defense. When the final whistle blew on Jan. 9 in the Superdome concluding season, Alabama led the nation in rushing defense, passing defense, total defense and scoring defense.
This Alabama defense, according to ESPN's Brad Edwards, is only the second since 1937 (when stats began to be kept) to finish first in rushing, passing, and total defense. The other is Barry Switzer's 1986 Oklahoma squad.
Now these factoids are nice to know, but I wanted to get a bit better idea of how this year's Crimson Tide defense stacked up against the whole of the competition. To do that I went digging through the NCAA's online statistics that go back to 1989 and then calculated the points-per-game for the rest using the numbers at College Football Data Warehouse.
We're gonna start with Scoring Defense because, basically, the better you are at limiting your opponent's ability to score, the better your chances of winning football games. Here are the top scoring defenses in all of college football for every season since 1986.
To find a team that gave up fewer points per game than this Alabama squad you have to go back to the 1988 Auburn squad that allowed just 7.67 points per game. The gold standard was set just two years prior to that when Oklahoma allowed 6.75 points per game - the only team in the last quarter century to permit less than a touchdown per game over the course of an entire season.
There are just five teams since 1986 to hold opponents under nine points a game and the last to do it was the 1991 Miami Hurricanes. Alabama's defensively oriented 1992 national championship squad was not quite to that lofty point, holding the competition to just 9.4 points per game.
Two other interesting teams that show up here. Nick Saban's 2003 National Champion LSU squad was tops that season permitting just 11 points per game and Mike Shula's 2005 Alabama team lead the country allowing just 10.7 points per game.
Oh, and one other thing, the No. 2 scoring defense last season was LSU whose 11.3 points per game was more than a field goal more per contest than Alabama.
The next question is how does this year's team stack up against the legendary Crimson Tide defenses of yore? Well, to address that we here at Roll Bama Roll dug through the archives and created a public spreadsheet that has the defensive numbers for Alabama going back to 1961.
Here are the points allowed per game for all 14 of Alabama's national championship squads.
Data available here
The 2011 defense certainly stands among the best of Alabama's national championship teams since the Bryant era and, as we noted above, even edges Gene Stallings' legendary 1992 squad. Still, it falls short of the insane defenses that Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas put on the field in their day.
Now lets look at the scoring defense for every Crimson Tide team in the last half-century.
Data available here
Obviously, there is a general trend for allowing more points that is probably attributable to the changes in the game itself. Yet there are a few things that stand out here. First is exactly how bad the 1969 and 1970 teams were defensively. While the change to the wishbone in 1971 is often cited for a turnaround in Alabama's fortunes, it's clear the better defense had a lot to do with it as well.
After the Bryant era it's not to hard to pick out the Gene Stallings and Nick Saban tenures. The achievement of these two men wasn't just in creating great defenses but sustaining that high level of play over a period of time. The rest of the bars on this graph illustrates the boom-then-bust fortunes of Alabama football since the early 80s.
Since Coach Bryant's return to the Capstone in 1958, there have been 15 Alabama team's to allow less than ten points per game over the whole season. The bulk of these teams were under Coach Bryant and the best of them were in the 1960s. Still, you have to go back 37 years to find a Crimson Tide defense that was more stifling than this year's unit.
Still, it's important to note that having epically dominant defenses are no guarantee for gridiron success. The 1962 team is a case in point. A 6-7 loss to Georgia Tech (on a failed two-point conversion) was the only blemish on the season but it denied Alabama the conference championship and any hope of the national crown.