Crimson Tide had nine players injured on the defensive side of the ball
Though Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney claimed Alabama is still the same ole Alabama earlier this week, the reality of it is, the Crimson Tide are not the same ole Alabama.
Granted, the Tide, who will play No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day as part of the College Football Playoff, is still talented and plays with the same tough conviction it always has under head coach Nick Saban.
However, Alabama has spent much of the 2017 football season beat up, especially on the defensive side. Nine of its key contributors on defense have been injured or are out for the season such as senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and defensive back Hootie Jones.
Linebackers Christian Miller (bicep) and Terrell Lewis (elbow) missed 10 games this year before returning for brief playing time in the Auburn game. Fellow linebacker Mack Wilson missed the last two games of the regular season with a foot injury.
Rashaan Evans, another linebacker, also missed two games due to an injury as did linebacker Afernee Jennings. Defensive end Da’Shawn Hand missed three games, and Minkah Fitzpatrick missed a game due to a hamstring injury which he has been battling for much of the year.
Still, with all of those injuries, the Crimson Tide led the nation in scoring defense (11.5 ppg.), were second in total defense (257.8 ypg.) and third in rushing defense (94.1 ypg.).
However, there is one area, even when healthy, the Tide struggled in as compared to years past — getting after the quarterback. In the two previous seasons, Alabama had 54 sacks in 2016 and 52 in 2015 as guys like Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Jonathan Allen got after the quarterback.
However this season, the Crimson Tide has just 31 sacks heading into the Sugar Bowl and has had issues all year getting pressure to the quarterback. In the Iron Bowl, Auburn quarterback Jared Stidham had all day to find his targets while completing 21-of-28 passes for 237 yards.
Last year, Williams and Anderson combined for 18 sacks from the outside linebacker positions. This year, the strongside position has just one sack in 12 games.
The question is can the return of Miller and Lewis be the difference? Can that open up things for guys like Jennings and Hand on the edges? Will that help Da’Ron Payne on the inside? Only time will tell.
One thing is certain, though. Alabama has not been Alabama on defense this year, but by the time the Sugar Bowl rolls around, it may very well be.