TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- OK, maybe Alabama’s defense isn’t dripping with the kind of talent it was a year ago.
Four of the starters on the Crimson Tide’s 2011 national championship defense were taken among the top 35 picks in April's NFL draft. That’s the kind of talent you simply don’t replace overnight.
At least, not in the SEC.
But try telling that to the guys on this Alabama defense. They grew tiresome of hearing all offseason about what they weren’t going to have this season and all the players who were no longer around.
“We did lose a lot of great players, but we also had a lot of players coming back who were hungry,” Alabama junior linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “We’re not as good as we were last year in some spots, and in some spots, we’re better.
“The main thing is that we want to make our own mark. We want to create our own identity, and that’s what we go out there to do every week.”
Had it not been for a late touchdown against Alabama’s reserves, the Crimson Tide would have pinned the first shutout on Mississippi State in the Dan Mullen era.
As it was, No. 1 Alabama rolled 38-7 on Saturday night with the kind of virtuoso defensive performance that has become the hallmark of this program.
The Crimson Tide don’t give up anything on the ground. They get after the quarterback, and they don’t beat themselves.
And even when they do give up the occasional drive, they break the other team’s spirit with timely plays.
Never was that more apparent than the third quarter Saturday when Mississippi State drove all the way from its own 2-yard line and to the Alabama 1. On third-and-goal from the 1, Alabama redshirt freshman defensive lineman D.J. Pettway stayed home and forced Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell into a rushed throw that was intercepted in the end zone by Robert Lester.
“That’s what we do, step up and make plays,” Lester said. “They had driven it on us pretty good. But good defenses keep them out of the end zone.”
Since the end of the 2010 season, Alabama has kept pretty much everybody out of its end zone. The Crimson Tide have now gone 13 straight SEC games without allowing more than 14 points.
“You know what the standard is here, and that standard never changes,” said Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, who blocked Mississippi State’s 31-yard field-goal attempt after the Bulldogs had driven the ball deep into Alabama territory on their first drive.
All you really need to know about that standard is that Alabama coach Nick Saban was still peeved afterward that the backups didn’t play better. They were on the field at the end of the game for Mississippi State’s only touchdown.
“I know everybody is probably going to say, ‘Well, you got upset with the backup players,’ ” Saban said. “I got upset with the backup players because they’re better than that. They can play better than that. They need to play with poise and confidence when they go in the game and compete just like everybody else competes.
“It’s not about shutting anybody out. It’s not any of that. It’s about them playing their best football.”
Overall, though, Saban has been as pleased as anybody about the way this defense has progressed from the Michigan game until now.
“Really, for all the young players we have, if you would have told me that we would be in the position statistically and scoring-wise that we are right now, I would have probably said, ‘No way,’ ” Saban said. “But these guys have really set out with an attitude that they want to prove something.”
There’s a lot more to prove, too, starting with next week’s trip to LSU.
“We look at every game the same way,” Lester said. “It’s about us and not who we’re playing. If we do the things we’re supposed to do, then it doesn’t matter who we’re playing.”
Hard to argue that theory when you watch Alabama play defense. The Tide are as sound as they are physical, and they’re as consistent as they are aggressive.
“We’re still a long way from being where we want to be, but it’s coming,” Milliner said. “We’re looking for that perfect game.”