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Bama Defense Back On Top After Manziel Encounter

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Mike Evans of Texas A&M torched the Crimson Tide for 279 yards on seven catches, but Alabama's Deion Belue has emerged as a shutdown cornerback. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.
Mike Evans of Texas A&M torched the Crimson Tide for 279 yards on seven catches, but Alabama's Deion Belue has emerged as a shutdown cornerback. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

The week after Alabama’s 49-42 win over Texas A&M on Sept. 14, many college football pundits were crying in unison that Alabama and head coach Nick Saban would have to settle for the “new defense” in college football — namely, outscoring opponents in today’s arena football mentality.

Aggies quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel had thrown for a career-best 464 yards, five touchdowns and ran for an additional 98 yards against the Crimson Tide. The 562 total yards were the second-most in the history of the SEC, ranking behind only the 576 total yards that Manziel put up against Louisiana Tech in 2012.

In Alabama's shootout win over Texas A&M last month, sophomore wide receiver Mike Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Saban’s defense allowed the Aggies 628 yards, the most an Alabama team has ever given up in a game.

However, since that long afternoon in College Station, Texas, the Alabama defense has given up just one touchdown, three field goals and one extra point during its last five games. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 9.7 points per game. During its last three games, Alabama has allowed an average of 200 yards of total offense, elevating the Tide to fifth nationally in total defense.

Excluding its game against Texas A&M, Alabama has given up just two touchdowns in its six other games this season. In addition, Saban's squad has allowed only 16 points during the last five games with shutouts of Ole Miss and Arkansas.

Critics claim that the level of competition should be factored into Alabama's defensive success since Arkansas and Kentucky are ranked 103rd and 104th, respectively, in scoring offense. However, Ole Miss has had success against every other team it has played except for Alabama. Ole Miss went into its game with Alabama averaging 38 points per game, but was shut out, 25-0.

Five-Game Stretch Another Milestone For Saban Era

According to Michael Casagrande of AL.com, Alabama's current run compares to four other similar five-game stretches in Tide history:

1961 — 0 points allowed

1966 — 7

1974 — 16

1979 — 9

Through its first seven games this season, Alabama's defense nationally ranks in the Top 10 in several categories, including rushing defense (eighth, 98.3 yards per game), total defense (fifth, 275 ypg), pass defense (ninth, 176 ypg) and first down defense (fourth, 100).

Alabama also nationally ranks fourth in red-zone trips, with opponents having scored on seven of 11 trips (63.6 percent).

The Tide leads the nation in only allowing 9.7 points per game.

How Will Tide Compensate At Safety?

Strong safety Vinnie Sunseri will be missed. He was a playmaker and a leader for Alabama.

Sunseri tore his left ACL against Arkansas and is out for the remainder of the season. He underwent successful surgery earlier this week and Saban believes that Sunseri could participate on a limited basis during spring practice.

Sunseri scored two defensive touchdowns this season. Taking his place is Landon Collins, who has 28 tackles, five pass breakups and two quarterback hurries. Alabama won a fierce recruiting battle for the 6-foot, 215-pound five-star prospect from Geismar, La. Collins earned his playing stripes by being a head-hunter on special teams.

The talented sophomore is one of the more physically impressive athletes for Alabama. After Saban finished his weekly press conference Monday, reporters asked Collins what happens with the team's secondary personnel.

"We have to step it up," Collins said, according to Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "He (Sunseri) was a big loss for our defense. But this is a great opportunity for me. I'm excited. It's been humbling and I've been staying at it trying to work as hard as I can to get to where I am now. I'm thankful for it. I just take every advantage I can get."

Cornerback Position A Carousel Opposite Belue

Alabama's cornerback position opposite shutdown corner Deion Belue has been in constant flux this season.

Saban confirmed late this week that Cyrus Jones, who notched his second interception of the season against Arkansas, likely will get his first start against Tennessee Saturday due to Bradley Sylve’s ankle injury. Jones had been third on the depth chart behind Sylve and Eddie Jackson, who has had his playing time reduced because of off-field issues.

Senior John Fulton has played sparingly since being beaten several times against the Aggies' talented wide receiver corps, and freshman Maurice Smith has only played in a mop-up role.

Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith also will see increased opportunities. Williams, a second-team strong safety, will receive increased repetitions behind Collins and continue to play the Star position in the Tide’s nickel package. When Alabama shifts to its dime package with six defensive backs, Williams will move to the Money position and Smith will take over at Star.

Tide Dominant In October

Ron Higgins, of Nola.com., noted the reasons why Alabama has won five consecutive games.

“Through the first two games this season, Alabama was outgained by 66 yards of total offense,” Higgins wrote. “Over the past five contests, the Crimson Tide has outgained the opposition by a whopping 1,364 yards (2,449 yards to 1,085), has outscored its opponents 40.2-3.2 points per game, and is allowing 3.2 points per game and 3.86 yards per play. Alabama has scored 69 unanswered points dating back to a Kentucky touchdown at the 7:05 mark of the third quarter in Lexington on Oct. 12.”

Redshirt To Be Taken Off Liner

According to Casagrande, Saban announced on his radio show Thursday night that freshman Dee Liner likely will play against Tennessee.

“We weren’t going to play Dee Liner,” Saban said. “We had him ready to play last week, but we didn’t put him in the game. But we’re probably going to have to play him in the game this week as a defensive lineman.”

Liner is an insurance policy after Saban announced on Wednesday that defensive lineman LaMichael Fanning has been suspended indefinitely because of a violation of team rules. Earlier season-ending injuries to redshirt freshmen Dalvin Tomlinson and Dakota Ball also have forced Saban's hand in using Liner.