TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The Alabama secondary entered the season with a chip on its shoulder. Dee Milliner quoted the prognosticators who said he and his fellow defensive backs would be the team's handicap, the reason the Crimson Tide might not make a return trip to the national championship.
It's hard enough to repeat, let alone without three-quarters of a secondary that allowed the fewest passing yards and points in the country last year. With Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and DeQuan Menzie all gone to the NFL, Alabama surely would falter.
"They say we're going to be the weak link," Milliner said after Alabama throttled Michigan 41-14 in the season-opener, sending a message to the country that it might not be 2010 or 2011, but the Crimson Tide defense would not fall off. It would not be the secondary that would let them down. "We always take it upon ourselves and compete and voice our opinion when we come on the field."
Milliner did his part to keep the secondary afloat. The junior finished third in the country with 20 passes defended. After he picked off Denard Robinson and batted down four of his passes in Texas, not many quarterbacks were looking to Milliner's side of the field.
Alabama coach Nick Saban stopped short of calling Milliner a shut-down cornerback, but the truth is Saban never has called anyone that. The sixth-year coach of the Crimson Tide insisted that every cornerback he's ever known had gotten beat at one time or another, even Milliner, who likely will be picked in the first round of the NFL draft should he leave school early.
And like Milliner, the Alabama secondary has been good but not perfect. Despite finishing fifth in passing yards allowed, it hasn't been smooth sailing this season. There were times when it looked like no one could throw on the Crimson Tide. And there have been times when it looked as if no one could fail throwing against the Crimson Tide.
Take for instance Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. The junior lit up Alabama for 265 yards and a touchdown through the air in the SEC Championship Game. Had it not been for a tipped pass by C.J. Mosley at the line, who knows where Alabama would be playing?
A couple of weeks earlier it was Texas A&M freshman phenom Johnny Manziel carving up UA for 253 yards and two touchdowns. It was the Heisman Trophy winner's seminal moment in 2012.
Even LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger found success against the previously unfailing Alabama defense. The struggling junior threw for a season-high 298 yards. He was the first to reveal the chink in the Tide's armor.
"It just goes back to us," Milliner said of the secondary's struggles down the stretch. "We've got to make more plays, do more things right. We did struggle a little there near the end. We did have a couple of guys get banged up. The season gets rough as it goes. For the most part, we made it through. We're back in the championship (game), so I think it's a great thing. We've just got to go out in the championship (game) and make plays."
Forgive Milliner if his comments seeme defensive. It was the tone of most of Alabama's players. Even the usually agreeable Nico Johnson bristled at some of the comments about the defensive line. Like the secondary, inconsistency has plagued the pass rush all season.
"All they hear is we don't have a true pass rusher," Johnson said. "In their mind, they think we do. I personally think, I know we do. But sometimes we make mistakes that make us look like this or that, but I think they got a chip on their shoulder to go out and prove that. Going into the Georgia game, they tried to do that and got a couple big sacks in there, but we just want to go out and try and reestablish that identity that we can keep a quarterback in the pocket."
Keeping Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson contained will be necessary for the defense's success Jan. 7, when the two schools meet in Miami for the BCS Championship.
Golson presents unique challenges with his arm as well as his legs. He has thrown for 11 touchdowns and run for five more. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound South Carolina native is athletic and can extend plays with his feet, something that has troubled Alabama this season. Manziel picked apart the Crimson Tide by giving his receivers time to run. Those few extra seconds doomed the secondary."
(Golson) is able to throw, he's able to run, so we gotta be on our p's and q's because the last quarterback we played that was able to do that, we lost," Johnson said.
Defensive lineman Damion Square said it will be important for the pass-rushers to make Golson uncomfortable in the pocket.
"It's big for our secondary," he said. "You never want a quarterback to get a five-step drop and have a guy be wide open with no pressure in his face. That's what you do as a D-lineman. You get your hands up and pressure the B-gaps."
Square said he is comfortable with the game plan Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have drawn up.
Keeping Golson one-dimensional will be difficult enough, but so will stopping Notre Dame's all-world tight end, Tyler Eifert. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound All-American hauled in 44 receptions and scored four touchdowns during the regular season.
Milliner, who got to know Eifert at an awards banquet in Orlando this month, said he might be the best tight end he has seen on film.
"He can line up as a wide receiver and stretch the defense and create different matchups against the linebackers that can be challenging at times," Milliner said. "I just have to watch him and know where he's at all times on the field."
Milliner continued: "He's a big target. He can change every game with ... his size and how athletic he is and the way he goes up and gets the ball. He can change it up and make it challenging for different matchups. We just have to watch him and be alert for him on the field."
If Eifert is able to run freely, Alabama's defense could be in for trouble. The same problems that plagued the secondary against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia might very well repeat themselves if Golson has time to throw and can find Eifert open with room to run.
"It always starts with communication," Milliner said. "Knowing where you're supposed to be and knowing who's supposed to be there, talking back there in the back end to get everybody on the same page, because if you have one mess up, it can make the whole secondary look bad."
Milliner will talk often with his fellow defensive backs during the game, just don't expect to see him trading barbs with Eifert. The two spoke enough in Orlando. On the field it will be all about the matchup of two hard-hitting All-Americans.
"You always like the physicality of the game, because that's part of the game today: How physical a team can be, which team is more physical than the other," Milliner said. "If I do get a chance to match up against him, that would be great, because I know who he is now, having sat down and talked to him and chill with him. That would be a great feeling to compete with him.
"We've already cracked some jokes about it. Hopefully we can live up to our jokes we were talking about."