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For Alabama's defense to be best ever, it must stop Deshaun Watson

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If Alabama's 2016 defense wants to own the title of greatest Alabama defense ever, here's its chance.

During the last couple of months, we've heard about how good, how special and how historic Alabama's defense has been this season. And the numbers don't lie. It's hard not to place this defense among the greatest in both Alabama history and college football history -- period.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide take on No. 2 Clemson and two-time Davey O'Brien Award winner Deshaun Watson -- the best quarterback Alabama has seen since facing Watson in last year's national championship -- in Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T. Alabama's defense leads the country in points per drive, yards per game, yards per play, Total QBR and just about every other major defensive category. In eight straight games the Crimson Tide have held each opponent under 300 yards, and they didn't allow a touchdown during the entire month of November.

Alabama has forced 27 turnovers (tied for ninth in the FBS) and scored 11 defensive touchdowns this season. Nine of the 11 touchdowns came against AP-ranked opponents, and most came when the game was still in question.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama's 2016 defense has faced:

  • Ten opponents ranked in the top 40 of offensive efficiency (Washington was best at third), most in a single season since 2005.

  • Five starting QBs ranked in the top 25 in Total QBR.

  • Ten players who rushed for more than 1,000 yards ... and they averaged less than 31 yards per game against Alabama.

That's next-level stuff there. That's like an NFL team dropping down to the college ranks just to bully the little guys.

But here's the honest truth: It means diddly-squat if this defense doesn't stop Watson and his high-flying Clemson offense. He's the crown jewel of opposing quarterbacks for Alabama's defense. He's the guy great defenses want to bury because of the pride in beating the best and how much it will boost their resumes.

"Deshaun Watson is maybe, arguably, the best college football player in the country," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Alabama hasn't exactly seen a lot of great quarterback play this season. It's only fitting that the best quarterbacks Alabama will see during the entire 2016 season are in the College Football Playoff.

And Watson is the best Alabama will see. If Alabama's historic-looking defense doesn't take care of business -- which is something that's been on defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick's mind for a while -- the pundits will knock this unit right off its pedestal.

Fair or not, that's the culture we live in. But Alabama has to feel good about what it's done to quarterbacks this season. Only Ole Miss' Chad Kelly and Arkansas' Austin Allen threw for 300-plus yards on Alabama (they actually hit the 400-yard mark), but both lost to the Tide. Outside of those two, quarterbacks not named Jake Browning averaged 143.4 yards per game against Alabama.

Browning, who statistically was the best quarterback Alabama had faced to this point, finished the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Saturday with a measly 150 passing yards and a touchdown plus two interceptions.

So yes, Alabama's defense has passed all of its QB tests -- most with flying colors -- but Monday is different. Watson is a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist. He has 4,173 passing yards and 38 touchdowns this season. He also has 586 rushing yards and eight more scores.

On Monday, Bama faces the quarterback who accounted for 478 yards of offense with four passing touchdowns against Alabama last year in the national title game, and that has left a rancid taste in the Tide's mouth.

The thing about Watson is that he evades pass-rushers so well -- Alabama prides itself on being the best at the pass rush -- and in last year's game, according to ESPN Stats & Information, he scrambled seven times for 49 yards and four first downs against Alabama and completed 6 of 9 passes for 140 yards outside the pocket.

"Deshaun Watson is a prolific player, a game-changer, can do a lot of things to hurt you, do a lot of good things with his team, run the ball, and can spread you out," Bama senior linebacker Ryan Anderson said. "And he's a very smart player. He understands the situations in the game, and it's going to be tough to stop him."

Yes it is, but this is Alabama we're talking about. Alabama doesn't want things given to it. Alabama's defense is salivating at another shot at Watson. If he's stopped, that might put this unit over the top when it comes to best-ever talk.

"It's a challenge for us, but we see challenges as another opportunity for us," Fitzpatrick said.