CFP defenses face big challenges


My how times have changed in college football since the last time Alabama and Notre Dame met.

The Crimson Tide rode the nation’s best defense into that January 2013 national championship matchup, yielding a paltry 184 yards and eight points a game.

Fast-forward to the new reality: Offense wins championships. Or at least it’s carried the top-ranked Tide, No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Ohio State into contention heading into Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal games.

Alabama may have the nation’s best offense.

“This is not pro I, let’s run it up inside and play great defense,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose team will face the Crimson Tide in Arlington, Texas. “They’re still playing fundamentally sound defense, but with the offenses as they are today, you know, it’s very difficult not to give up some yards.

“So you’re seeing fundamentally sound defense. You’re still seeing the same principles. You’re seeing at times elite play in certain position groups at Alabama. And then an offense now that can rival the very best college offenses in the country.”

Only the Tigers, who play the Buckeyes in New Orleans, have an elite defense statistically among the playoff teams. The other three have been plenty good enough to support those high-scoring offenses.

But ‘Bama doesn’t rank higher than 12th nationally in the four major defensive statistical categories. Notre Dame isn’t better than 14th and Ohio State has been stingy against the run and more generous to opposing passers.

Then there’s Clemson, which ranks sixth in total defense, giving up 298.5 yards a game.

The AP All-America teams had eight representatives from the playoffs on the first-team offense and three on defense: Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade.

The playoff teams have three of the four Heisman Trophy finalists.


The Skinny: The Tide have veteran standouts like Surtain and linebackers Dylan Moses and Christian Harris and rising star freshmen like pass rusher Will Anderson and defensive back Malachi Moore. Have been stingy at times but gave up yards and points galore to Mississippi and Florida. The Tide have 21 sacks over the last four games and 32 total.

Best Game: Alabama became the first to shut out a Mike Leach team, beating Mississippi State 41-0 and allowing just 163 total yards while forcing three turnovers.

Worst Game: Alabama allowed a whopping 647 total yards in a 63-48 win over Mississippi. It was the most yards a Tide defense had ever surrendered, and the most points by an unranked team against ‘Bama. “It humbled us a lot,” Surtain said.

Best Player: Surtain is a shutdown cornerback who was the SEC defensive player of the year and is a Jim Thorpe Award finalist. Has 32 tackles, an interception and 10 pass breakups.


The Skinny: The Tigers are not as star heavy and don’t have an Isaiah Simmons-type to lead the way. That balanced approach has Clemson giving up fewer points this year than last season’s group. The soft spot may be in pass coverage, where Clemson is giving up 198 yards a game, about 30 yards more than last year.

Best player: Linebacker James Skalski is a fierce hitter and the glue that holds the group together. When he missed games against Boston College and Notre Dame with an injury, Clemson allowed 75 points and lost to the Irish. With Skalski back the past three games, the Tigers have given up just 37 total, including only 10 to Notre Dame in the ACC Championship rematch.

Worst game: At Notre Dame, where the Tigers gave up 518 yards — unheard of against a Brent Venables-led defense — and permitted the Irish a long touchdown drive at the end to tie a game they’d eventually win in double overtime.

Best game: The rematch with the Fighting Irish for the ACC crown. Clemson held Notre Dame to a field goal on two early trips to the red zone, then pounded the Irish the rest of the way. The Tigers gave up just 263 yards to win their sixth consecutive league crown.


The Skinny: Under third-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, set to become head coach at alma mater Vanderbilt, the Irish entered their final regular-season game against Syracuse with a top 10 defense. But they’ve given up 955 yards combined the past two games and have a tendency to allow big passing plays.

Best player: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. A first-team Associated Press All-American and Butkus Award winner, the 6-foot-1, 216-pound senior has 56 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, an interception, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Clemson.

Worst game: The 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. The Irish struggled to defend quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne.

Best game: The 31-17 victory at North Carolina on Nov. 27. Held the prolific Tar Heels, whose offense was averaging 563.4 yards a game coming in, to just 78 total yards and zero points in the second half.


The Skinny: COVID-19 issues and a six-game schedule may have impeded the Buckeye’s progress. But the defense did recover 10 fumbles, collect six interceptions and rack up 17 sacks in that limited schedule.

Best Game: Ohio State turned in a strong defensive performance in a 22-10 win over Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes allowed just 329 yards and intercepted two passes.

Worst Game: Ohio State nearly blew a three-touchdown lead before holding on for a 42-35 win over Indiana, albeit with help from a defensive touchdown late in the third quarter. Michael Penix Jr. torched the Buckeyes for 491 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Best player: All-America cornerback Shaun Wade had 21 tackles, two interceptions and three pass breakups. His 36-yard interception return for a TD against Indiana proved huge.

By John Zenor

AP Sports Writer

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