TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It seemed utterly implausible in February: Alabama's defense couldn't possibly follow up a lofty championship season and match it, right? The Crimson Tide's 2011 defense was improbably good. The numbers were jaw-dropping, the dominance historic.
What happened in April only further built the case against a repeat performance. Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower were all selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Courtney Upshaw followed early in the second, Josh Chapman and DeQuan Menzie in the fifth. More than half of Alabama's starting defense signed contracts to play on Sundays. Just three starters would return to Tuscaloosa to rebuild a defense that had allowed fewer than 9 points per game.
Robert Lester, C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and other veterans returned for spring camp and worked hard into the fall. They integrated in rookies like Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix at safety, Xzavier Dickson at Jack linebacker and Deion Belue at cornerback. The talent was there, the bodies looked good on the hoof. They were fast, strong and dynamic -- all the earmarks of their predecessors.
But could the Tide defense be as stout as a season ago? Even coach Nick Saban thought the chances of that happening seemed slim. Through eight games, he's been shown otherwise. Alabama is tops in the nation in pass defense, rush defense, scoring defense and total defense. They're all within shouting distance of the stats of a year ago.
"If you would have told me that we would be in the position statistically and scoring defense-wise that we are in right now I would have said, 'Probably, no way,' " he said.
If you had asked Saban whether the defense could actually improve upon the 2011 season, there wouldn't have been a "probably" about it, just "no way." Well, the improbable has come to fruition. Alabama's defense isn't quite as dominant as it was a year ago in terms of shutting down opposing offenses, but they've been better at making big plays. Alabama's number of sacks, interceptions, fumbles and turnovers per game gained are up from a year ago.
Saban might not have believed it was possible, but his starting inside linebacker did. Mosley didn't doubt it for a minute.
"I'm not really surprised," he said. "As a whole defense, coming into the season, we were always talking about what was going to be our identity for the 2012 team. We felt we still had great players, even though great players left last year. But we had players that could fill their roles. So far we're getting the job done."
But the increase in turnovers, jumping from 1.54 per game to 2.87? Wasn't Mosley surprised by that?
"Not really," he said confidently. "We work on it every day in practice, getting the ball out, getting an interception or ripping out the ball. You practice what you preach."
Alabama is tied for fourth in the country in turnovers gained with 23, three more than it had all of last year.
Lester, Alabama's senior safety, said the team made a point this offseason to make more big plays.
"We put a lot of emphasis on creating more turnovers this year and changing the momentum of the game," he said. "We feel like if we can change the momentum of the game, it eliminates their big plays and we can make more big plays."
Lester has done a lot to swing the momentum of games of late. He has had interceptions in the end zone in back-to-back games, his last coming against Mississippi State on Saturday in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The pick kept points off the board and likely dealt the final blow to the Bulldogs chances of an upset.
All in a days work for Lester, said Mosley. It was only two seasons ago that Lester had eight interceptions. This year might just be a return to form.
"He's a big-time player so he can make some big-time plays -- and I appreciate that," Mosley said.
Against LSU, he and the Alabama defense might be in for more turnovers. If there's one area of concern for the Tigers, it's keeping the football on offense. Zach Mettenberger has thrown four interceptions this season and LSU has lost eight fumbles.
In a game that pits two of the most talented defenses in the country, it could come down to who blinks first, who doesn't tuck the ball high and tight, who makes an errant pass and gives the ball away. It's a game of inches, and one extra possession might make the difference.
"This is a big takeaway team we're playing this week," Saban said of LSU. "It's going to be important that you don't turn the ball over."
With his quarterback and his defense, Saban should like his chances.
LSU is 33rd in the country in turnovers lost. Alabama is tied for fifth. AJ McCarron hasn't thrown an interception all season and the Tide have lost just one fumble in the last two games.
If Alabama can hold onto the football and the defense can continue making big plays, it could be the difference between the Tide silencing Death Valley or becoming engulfed in it.