NCF Nation: Kirby Smart


NEW ORLEANS -- Finding a weakness in Alabama often requires a microscopic lens. There's a reason the Crimson Tide are No. 1 and have been the most dominant team in college football the past few years.

But there appears to be one glaring Achilles' heel on this otherwise imposing elephant right now, and it's one that could provide underdog Ohio State some hope in Thursday night's College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Alabama has struggled -- at least relative to its own high standards -- at the cornerback position and is vulnerable to big plays in the passing game.

"I thought we'd play better in the secondary than we have," Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "We've obviously worked on it, tried to attack that area, tried to help those guys some. And at the end of the day, we have a lot of situations where if we can make the play and finish the play, then we're probably not talking about it."

The coverage concerns, though, remain a major talking point in Tuscaloosa, and never more so than after the Auburn game. Tigers receiver Sammie Coates so thoroughly burned the Alabama defense that Smart tried three different players at one cornerback spot during the game. Starter Eddie Jackson later apologized for his performance on Twitter, though he's moved on since then.

"We made our mistakes in the secondary," Jackson said, "but we try not to listen to what the media says and just worry about the team and the task that we have at hand."

It wasn't just one bad game, either. Alabama ranked a mediocre 57th in the FBS in passing yards allowed and was 24th among Power 5 schools in yards per attempt on 15-plus-yard throws, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Deep passes down the sideline particularly hurt the Tide, especially the past two games.

That's a pressure point Ohio State might be able to squeeze, especially since the Buckeyes' receiving corps is one of the team's strengths. Ohio State is led in that area by senior Devin Smith, whom offensive coordinator Tom Herman called the best deep-ball receiver in America after he reeled in three touchdown passes -- all of which went at least 39 yards -- in the Big Ten championship game bludgeoning of Wisconsin.

"I think it speaks volumes that he would say that," Smith said. "It's really my speed. I can get behind defenders really easily, and if you have the speed to threaten a DB and then make a move, you can get open."

Herman said Smith used to be "a one-trick pony" who could only go on fly routes. He has become a more complete receiver this year, but the big play remains his calling card. Smith averaged an FBS-best 26.6 yards per catch this season and has averaged 37.6 yards on his 29 career touchdowns. He has 14 catches and nine touchdowns this season on throws of 20 yards or longer, which is the most among all Power 5 players, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

His wheels are now combined with quarterback Cardale Jones' howitzer arm -- remember Smith helped Jones look good in his first career start against Wisconsin by catching some 50-50 balls -- to make the Buckeyes even more vertically venomous. Jones also has an array of other targets, like Evan Spencer, Michael Thomas, Corey Smith and Jalin Marshall.

"They remind you of an SEC receiving corps when you look at them," Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. "Their receivers are probably the best thing that stands out about their offense."

The opposite could be said of the Tide's corners with their defense. Cyrus Jones said the communication has been off at times between players, made more difficult by the juggling of roles throughout the season. He thought they made strides in the SEC title game against Missouri except when Tigers quarterback Maty Mauk made plays outside the pocket, something Cardale Jones can do as well.

Cyrus Jones is well aware of the criticism aimed toward his position group and the heat they're facing Thursday.

"I take that personally," he said. "Any time people think we're the weak link of the defense, that's something that motivates us to come out and try to shut offenses down."

There's little doubt the Buckeyes will try to pinch that bruise. One reason teams like to throw it deep against the Tide is that there's such little room to maneuver at the line of scrimmage against the nation's No. 1 rushing defense.

"You're not going to grind it out," Herman said. "You're not going to score whatever it takes to win with seven- or 10-play drives down the field [getting] six yards a pop. You've got to find a way to manufacture explosive plays."

That fits right in to what Ohio State likes to do on offense anyway. And if successful, that could give the underdog Buckeyes one of their only true advantages in this game, along with perhaps their best shot to win it.
NEW ORLEANS -- Lane Kiffin’s media muzzle finally came off on Monday as the Alabama offensive coordinator’s team prepares to face Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since August, the always-quotable Kiffin did not disappoint at Monday’s news conference. Here is the best of Lane from his time at the podium:

On his first season working under Nick Saban after being fired as USC’s head coach midway through the 2013 season: “I’m sure I haven’t rubbed off on him. And he shouldn’t. Here’s a coach that got fired, unemployed, he brings in [during] one of the best runs in the history of college football. So I’m just a [graduate assistant] sitting there trying to learn every day, no, literally taking notes from him and how he runs it and what an unbelievable opportunity to have after the great run at USC in those years being there with Pete Carroll, and now to be able to be with him, it will be a good book someday.”

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertAlabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin runs drills during Monday's practice at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
On what he has learned in working for Saban: “There’s a list that would go on forever about it. For Coach Saban to afford me this opportunity to come here for myself and to be able to be the offensive coordinator is one thing, but to be able to sit every day -- just like our staff meeting this morning we’ve already had -- and to be able to learn from somebody like him and his process, shoot, I would have done it for free. I would have paid him for it, like most people would.”

On coaching a game this season at Tennessee, where he was head coach in 2009: “I was sitting there before the game and I said, ‘Who would have thought, Coach, that one day I was going to go back here working as an assistant for you?’ It was just he and I sitting there, and how this crowd base was getting off the bus. ‘And then our next game we’re going to go into LSU and have the same thing to you.’ I don’t know. He’s funnier than you guys think. He made a joke one time about how did I get higher on the most-hated list than he did. He might have been mad about that.”

On his habit of throwing up his hands to signal a touchdown at the start of promising plays: “I do that 30 times a game. They only show it when it works. A lot of times … I don’t even know I’m doing it, really. It’s just in my head that they’re in this coverage and so there’s an excitement that, because you’re calling plays to get a defense, if we get this defense, we’re going to score.”

On his job prospects last year before Saban hired him in January: “The phone wasn’t ringing a lot. That’s the reality. Regardless of we all see ourselves in a different view a lot of times than others. I thought, ‘Well, OK, probably not going to get a head-coaching job, but it will be easy to get an offensive coordinator job because of what we’ve done before and places we’ve been.’ And like I said, the phone wasn’t ringing. And he called. And he took a chance. I know he thought a lot about it. Because it wasn’t going to be the popular, necessarily the media hire, as he’s referred to before. But he believed in what he thought and what the interview was and the times we had discussions before.”

On whether he misses regularly speaking to the media after frequently putting his foot in his mouth as a head coach in the past: “I don’t think you miss it. I just always took the approach, and it haunted me at times -- especially when you lose, everything gets magnified -- that I was just going to say what was on my mind. And it wasn’t going to be coach speak, and I wasn’t going to get up there and say what every coach gets up and says. That’s not what you guys want to hear, so I’d answer questions exactly what I was thinking as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you like it did.”

On the perception that he and Nick Saban have wildly different personalities: “I think that assumption about us being so different is very fair, but I don’t think it’s really accurate. We may not have the same personality, but we do have a lot of the same beliefs when it comes to coaching. One of the many stupid things I said was when I took a shot at Urban [Meyer] in the SEC championship game when I was doing ESPN, I said, ‘Well, Florida has better players, but Alabama has better coaches.’ Well that wasn’t very smart to say, but what I was trying to say was my respect for watching Coach Saban’s teams and programs over the years is unbelievable. And I do totally believe in a lot of the exact same things that he’s always been about.”

On the difference between being a head coach and being a coordinator: “I think being a head coach for as long as I was, you kind of forget the value of being able to be with your quarterback, to be able to be with your offensive players the entire game. Now I don’t even watch a [defensive] play. At the end of the game, I go in and I’m in the locker room with Kirby [Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator], I’ve got no idea what we did on defense, any plays that happened because rarely ever do I even see a play. I just stay with Blake [Sims], stay with the offensive guys, go over the last series in detail, go over what we will potentially see in the next series, adjustments and that’s very foreign to what I had been doing, where before you have to watch the game.”

Buckeyes sick of talk about SEC speed

December, 29, 2014
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NEW ORLEANS -- All it takes to rile up Ohio State are three little letters.

Ask the Buckeyes about being underdogs and they are quick to embrace the role. Make them relive some of the adversity they’ve encountered this season, both on and off the field, and they have no problems doing so.

But bring up their speed and the how it compares to the vaunted SEC, and even the most polite Buckeyes will take some offense as they gear up for No. 1 Alabama and the chance to erase the perception that has seemingly followed them around for a decade heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott is one of several Buckeyes who were recruited by SEC schools and would be considered to have "SEC speed."
“Are we as fast? All right, you can flip on the film and make that decision yourself,” Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry said. “You know, I hate that question, because we recruit fast guys. We can play sideline to sideline, so just take a look and see.

“I’m not sold on the whole SEC speed thing, because we’ve got teams in the Big Ten that are talented and they’ve got players who are really speedy across all conferences.”

None of them get more credit than the mighty SEC, which has parlayed its freakishly gifted athletes into a near monopoly over the national championship, even with its seven-year string having been snapped a season ago.

And no league is perhaps more criticized for falling behind in foot speed than the Big Ten, with Ohio State often taking the majority of the brunt having largely come up short in most of their marquee matchups against the SEC since it last won a national championship in 2002.

But if SEC speed is measured by breakaway tailbacks, there’s no question Ohio State has one of those in Ezekiel Elliott, who certainly didn’t look capable of being caught from behind as he dashed 81 yards for a score in the Big Ten title game.

If it’s about dynamic playmakers at linebacker, Darron Lee and the stats sheet he has stuffed in every conceivable way would seem to fit the ball.

Pass rushers who can fly around the edge? There might not be anybody in the nation more feared than Joey Bosa, with his 13.5 sacks.

Deep threats in the passing game? Devin Smith’s 29 career touchdowns have averaged an eye-popping 38 yards per catch.

From top to bottom, Ohio State has built a roster that certainly wouldn’t look out of place on Alabama’s conference schedule. And while the Buckeyes might still need a victory to erase some of the speed stigma, they don’t need it to already be considered SEC-caliber by a team that certainly knows what it takes.

“We've talked to several coaches in their league and every coach to a ‘T’ said -- these are coaches that have been in the SEC -- without a doubt, they've got an SEC team,” Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “They look on film just like one of the teams we play, if not better, because they've got big, fast receivers. Big, fast skilled guys.

“Do they look like an SEC team? Are they built like an SEC team? Yes, they're fast and big and they're physical. They've got SEC speed and SEC size. They just don't play in the SEC.”

Aside from the guys on the field, Ohio State also has a coach with an SEC pedigree, and Urban Meyer certainly knows a thing or two about recruiting elite athletes and winning on the grandest stage.

After all, it was his victory over the Buckeyes back when he was at Florida in 2006 that actually kicked off the run of dominance for the SEC while simultaneously helping forge the perception Ohio State didn’t have the physical tools to win national titles anymore.

The program hasn’t heard the end of it since then. And the Buckeyes are no longer bothering to hide their annoyance.

“I think we have great speed on our team,” Elliott said. “What exactly is SEC speed?”

However it’s defined, Ohio State clearly believes it has it. The chance to prove it is coming in a hurry as well.
NEW ORLEANS – The first thing that Tom Herman noticed about Alabama’s defensive line wasn’t its talent, although the Crimson Tide certainly have plenty of that.

It wasn’t the players' size, either, although Alabama’s starters along the front line average 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds per man. Nor was it the depth within a group that runs 10 deep.

What made Ohio State’s offensive coordinator shake his head while reviewing Alabama film was how much Alabama had of all three attributes.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ivory, Jonathan Allen
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrandon Ivory (left), Jonathan Allen and Alabama's defensive line can swallow up an opposing offense.
“What stood out to me was not only the size of them, but then the fact that they have backups that were just as big and good and they have backups to the backups that were just as big and as good, and they played,” said Herman, whose offense faces Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1. “And they didn’t really miss a beat when those backups were in.”

That’s hardly a surprise for a program that has earned a reputation as the most effective recruiting machine in college football. In its past three recruiting classes, Alabama has signed 13 defensive linemen whom ESPN’s recruiting analysts awarded with either a four-star or five-star grade.

That volume of talent up front has helped the Crimson Tide typically shut down opposing offenses – they rank 11th nationally in total defense (312.4 yards per game) – with sheer brute force.

“We've had some of this kind of depth before, but we usually lose a guy in the season, have a guy hurt,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “… Lost guys on the defensive line in years past. This year, haven't really lost guys. Been able to rotate guys and play a lot of guys. That helps us.

“Anytime you've got depth at that position, allows you to play more guys. That's what we like to do is play a bunch of guys.”

They’ve certainly done that. Defensive end Jonathan Allen was a first-team All-SEC pick after registering 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Fellow end Jarran Reed and nose guard A’Shawn Robinson each earned honorable mention. But every player on the line’s two-deep depth chart – a group that also includes ends Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway and nose Brandon Ivory – has double-digit tackles, and most have multiple sacks and tackles for loss.

“They’re really, really big up front. I mean really big,” Herman said. “They’ve got defensive ends who are 280, 290 pounds. They’ve got defensive tackles that are 320, 330 pounds and they don’t just have one group of them. They play about nine or 10 defensive linemen in what you would call competitive situations.”

That will certainly create a challenge for Ohio State’s youthful offensive line that has improved since Virginia Tech’s defense embarrassed the group in a 35-21 loss on Sept. 6. Herman said Alabama’s defense is somewhat reminiscent of the Michigan State defense the Buckeyes faced in a 49-37 victory on Nov. 8, but it’s safe to say Herman’s team hasn’t faced anything quite like what it will see on New Year’s Day.

Then again, the Buckeyes have come so far up front since the Virginia Tech game that it’s hard to even compare the line’s current state to where it was in the second game of the season.

“I watched a little bit of film earlier in the season, but that’s not who they are now. So we really can’t focus on who they were back then,” Allen said. “We’re going to look in terms of the most recent games and, like I said, they’re a good group, a lot of experience. They work well together.”

That is clearly the case, since Ohio State ranks fifth nationally in scoring at 45.2 points per game despite having to play three different quarterbacks because of injuries. But the Buckeyes are going to have difficulty getting anywhere near those kind of numbers on Thursday if they have difficulty moving Alabama’s oversized line out of the way.

“We have an idea of what they’re going to do,” Allen said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve been doing all year. It’s a little bit challenging because we didn’t have a lot of film on them, but I think we’ll be able to handle it.”

NEW ORLEANS -- There's an almost limitless supply of information available to Cardale Jones, more than a season of Alabama game films, anything and everything a Nick Saban defense has thrown at opponents over the last calendar year.

With just one measly game and a couple of mop-up appearances to watch as the Crimson Tide study up on Jones and Ohio State, Saban's supply is limited, to say the least.

It's almost a certainty that Alabama's defensive guru will cook up something a redshirt sophomore quarterback making just the second start of his career isn't prepared for, no matter how much footage Jones might have at his disposal. But while there is no substitute for experience and Ohio State's offensive philosophy doesn't change regardless of who is running the attack, there's at least a chance it might actually be Jones who has something of an edge leading up to Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl as a mystery man reading an open book, complex as it might be.

"There's been countless [hours], dating back to last year's Sugar Bowl, just trying to be prepared for any and everything," Jones said. "It's not so much exotic, but I would say they're a schematic defense. They prepare for the team they play that week, and they change their looks to defeat that team's offense.

"But we're not trying to fool anybody here. I mean, Nick Saban and Alabama's coaching staff have seen it all."

What the Crimson Tide haven't seen much of is Jones in action during many competitive situations, which might make it a challenge to put together a detailed scouting report of his tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.

What the former third-string quarterback did put on film in the 59-0 throttling of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game certainly caught Alabama's attention, though, and it proved without much doubt that he has the physical tools to pose a threat in the College Football Playoff both as a rusher and a passer. But outside of that breakout performance, there are only 18 other pass attempts on his resume, leaving little for Alabama to evaluate as it tries to formulate a plan to shut him down.

"Well, not knowing how he reacts to different things would be the toughest thing," Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations. You haven't seen enough tape to know.

"That's probably the hardest thing for us to get prepared for is we're watching one quarterback (J.T. Barrett) in a lot of games, yet we're going to face a different quarterback. So knowing what they want to do with that guy makes it harder, tougher to get ready for."

Even with all those extra hours of tape, Jones doesn't exactly have it all that much easier gearing up for the Crimson Tide, who are athletic, talented and intelligent enough to throw just about anything at the Buckeyes.

And in terms of reacting to different blitzes or coverages, the obvious downside to the lack of previous game film on Jones is that it means he doesn't have much experience putting his prep work into action on the field.

"I'm sure they will have a ton that he hasn't seen," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He hasn't seen a lot, by the way. He only played 62 plays against Wisconsin. But I don't think defenses game plan against quarterbacks. Defenses game plan against systems and plays and formations and tendencies and downs and distances.

"Will they say, this is this kid's strength or these are his weaknesses? Yes, but at the end of the day you've got to stop the entire machine."

Alabama only needed one tape to see that Jones could keep it humming along. But he hasn't left it with much else to work with to try to slow him down behind the wheel.

While the Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will bring an exciting and much-anticipated coaching matchup between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer, it also brings us an intriguing player vs. coaches matchup.

That would be Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones facing a pair of defensive gurus in Saban and his coordinating partner in crime, Kirby Smart. On paper, you have a redshirt sophomore, third-string-quarterback-turned-starter taking on two guys who eat, sleep and breathe defense and preparedness. What you have is Jones making his second start, following a fantastic showing in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, battling two brilliant football minds who got nearly a month to prepare for their relatively inexperienced opponent.

But you also have those two X's and O's brainiacs taking on a lumbering yet deceptively agile gunslinger who went from being defined by an infamous tweet to piling up 257 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 59-0 pounding of Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago.

While Ohio State trying to perfect the ideal game plan for a new quarterback -- for the second time this season -- against a tag team that feasts off inexperience and relishes the notion of extra time to think and scheme sounds daunting, Alabama has to be ready for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback who coaches and players really don't know a ton about. The factor of the relative unknown complicates things a little for Alabama as well.

"This guy is very, very capable," Saban said of Jones. "He's a very good passer. Big strong, athletic guy who can do all the things the other guy (J.T. Barrett) could do in terms of the quarterback runs. It's just a little different style, that's all. We did see him play almost a game and a half. And he pretty must did what the other guy did. The one thing he did really well was pass the ball. He made some really good throws in the Wisconsin game, big plays down the field. Which the other guy did, too, so we have a tremendous amount of respect what this guy can do."

Saban and Smart have kind of been down this path before. They adjusted on the fly in-game to Garrett Gilbert in the BCS title win over Texas in 2009 and prepared for a completely different quarterback -- and scheme -- against Jordan Jefferson and LSU in their 2011 national championship win.

So for the moment, this battle is a little bit of a chess match. While Saban and Smart, who watched their defense rank third in the SEC (312.4 yards allowed per game) and have combined to win four of their last five bowl games together, pose the threat of unleashing some new and threatening exotic looks to confuse Ohio State's green QB, Jones and his coaches have limited film and a plethora of offensive knowledge working in their favor as well.

See, while Jones is one obstacle Alabama's defensive brain trust must overcome, there's also the issue of preparing for any potential wrinkles from Meyer and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who won this year's Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant. The Buckeyes have been down this path before. After star quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, Herman helped develop Barrett into one of the nation's elite players.

In his first season of work, Barrett threw for 2,834 yards (more than Miller has in a single season) and a school-record 34 touchdowns while rushing for another 938 yards and 11 more scores. This was all before a season-ending ankle injury in the season finale against Michigan gave way to Jones.

Whether it was Barrett for so long or Jones for so little, Ohio State hasn't had to change much to help its quarterbacks.

"Most of their quarterbacks are kind of similar," Alabama safety Landon Collins said. "They run the same scheme offense. We’re just gonna have to watch film on what they do because, I mean, they’re not gonna change the whole offense for one player."

Ohio State isn't, and it doesn't have to. The Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans leading the Big Ten in total offense (507.6 yards per game) and scoring (45.2) and ranking third in passing (246.8 yards per game). That's all without Miller and mostly thanks to some masterful play calling by Herman to put Barrett in the right situations. Now, it's time for Herman to use a little bit of that magic on Jones to thwart Alabama's suffocating defense.

"We feel philosophically, they are going to run their offense," Saban said. "It's just what part of it they might feature a little different. That's the part we are not sure about."

Price of playing good defense going up

December, 13, 2014
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Alabama’s Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year and, at least for now, is the second-highest-paid defensive coordinator in the state.

How is that possible?

This is how: The price for good defense in college football is skyrocketing, especially in this era of offense being played at breakneck pace and 57 FBS teams averaging more than 30 points per game this season.

It’s the reason Auburn went out and made one of Smart’s best friends, former Florida coach Will Muschamp, the highest-paid coordinator (offense or defense) in college football. Muschamp’s blockbuster deal will pay him in excess of $1.6 million per year, which according to USA Today’s recent study, is more than at least 60 FBS head coaches earned this season.

That’s some serious dough to be paying a coordinator, but Auburn is serious about establishing the kind of identity on defense that it has on offense under Gus Malzahn.

What’s more, there’s also the business of keeping up with Alabama, which outgunned Auburn 55-44 a few weeks ago in the Iron Bowl, sending the Tigers to their fourth loss. In all four of those losses this season, Auburn gave up at least 34 points.

Less than 24 hours after the loss to Alabama, Malzahn fired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who has a pretty spiffy résumé of his own. But Auburn struggled to stop people most of the season, and even though the Tigers played for the national championship a year ago, Malzahn felt like he had to make a move on defense.

It was already a foregone conclusion that Muschamp was going to be one of the hottest free agents out there after getting the boot at Florida with two games remaining in the regular season, which made Malzahn’s decision to part ways with Johnson only that much easier.

South Carolina and Texas A&M had also set their sights on Muschamp, who had the luxury of sitting back and seeing how everything played out. He walked away from Florida with a $6 million parting gift and his reputation as one of the top defensive minds in the game fully intact.

Few defensive coaches around the country are more respected than Muschamp, who runs the same 3-4 defense Alabama does under Nick Saban and Smart and has a keen eye for the kind of player he’s looking for in his scheme.

Muschamp’s problems at Florida were on offense. The Gators were a load on defense every year he was there. In fact, they’re the only team in the SEC to finish in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past four seasons. They allowed just 4.45 yards per play this season; only four teams in the country were better (Clemson, Penn State, Stanford and UCF).

The Gators gave up 21.2 points per game this season, which was their highest average under Muschamp.

His true value goes a lot a deeper than numbers, though. His defenses play with a passion and a bloody-your-nose mindset that are infectious, and it also doesn’t hurt that he knows Alabama’s defensive scheme inside and out.

Saban has said the two guys who know how to run his defense exactly the way he wants it run are Smart and Muschamp.

The challenge for Muschamp will be incorporating his style of defense into Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system on offense. As a rule, the two don’t always go together, and one of the tricky parts is being able to find the right balance on the practice field, where, as a defensive coach, you feel like you’re able to be physical enough to keep your edge.

One of the reasons Muschamp was comfortable with signing on as Malzahn’s defensive coordinator was that Malzahn, for all the talk about his being a spread coach, believes deeply in running the ball. The Tigers are not one of these spread teams that’s going to throw it on every down.

It’s an offensive world right now in college football. Every game is on television, and the people who write the checks love points and love being entertained.

Most of the marquee head-coaching jobs are going to offensive guys right now. That’s no coincidence.

But it’s also no coincidence that the teams winning national championships are also playing championship defense. Only one of the past 10 BCS national champions (Auburn in 2010) has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in total defense.

The game’s changing, no doubt, but not to the point where defensive coaches of Muschamp’s ilk are devalued.

As Auburn showed us Friday night, people are still willing to pay top dollar to get them.

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Kirby SmartStacy Revere/Getty ImagesKirby Smart knows his Alabama defense must improve against uptempo offenses.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Lane Kiffin is beginning to understand. He referenced the word “process” -- Nick Saban’s beloved “process” -- twice during a 15-minute news conference on Sunday. And maybe more importantly, he seemed to understand the role of assistants under Saban, which is to be seen and not heard.

Kirby Smart has been familiar with “the process” for quite some time now. He practically grew up in it, cutting his teeth under Saban for the past nine seasons at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama. In that time he has never ruffled feathers, never said much of anything to make headlines. Every year he has quietly gone about the business of molding one of the best defenses in college football.

This season, however, could be his most challenging.

Alabama lost its leader at middle linebacker in C.J. Mosley; three-quarters of the secondary is gone, including first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; and veterans Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan will be missed on the defensive line. With such little experience and the question of solving uptempo offenses still perplexing the Alabama brain trust, there’s a lot to watch for.

“In terms of the defense this year, really excited about the group that we’ve got to work with,” Smart said at the outset of media day Sunday. “They’re full of energy, a lot of young guys out there competing. Obviously we’ve got to show some improvement, especially after the last two games last year.”

Those last two games against Auburn and Oklahoma were the tipping point. There were holes to be found before then, but you had to look long and hard to find them. Auburn, however, put the Tide’s defensive blemishes under a microscope, pushing the pace and outflanking the defense to the tune of 296 yards rushing. And to prove that was no fluke, Oklahoma went uptempo and exploited the secondary for 429 yards through the air, handing Alabama back-to-back losses to end the season for the first time since 2008.

To spin that into a positive, Smart said there “seems to be a little bit of a chip-on-their-shoulder type attitude,” and despite being a young defense, he sees “more depth at a lot of positions we didn’t have last year.”

“That’s key in college football these days -- having depth, playing more players, keeping guys fresh,” he said.

It’s also key to defending uptempo offenses, where shuffling in fresh legs is vital to keep up with the pace of play. Alabama looked a step slow against Auburn in the fourth quarter, and it meant the end to a perfect season and a shot at a third straight national championship.

“It’s definitely challenging because you don’t face that kind of offense daily,” Smart said. “It’s not really who we are offensively, so you spend time, obviously simulating that in different ways, whether it’s the scout team or your offense. But you can never simulate it as good as a hurry-up team that traditionally does this well.”

We won’t know whether Smart and Saban have the answers against uptempo offenses until we see how the season unfolds. But even this early into fall camp, we can glimpse where the strengths of Alabama’s defenses lie. And despite Saban’s best efforts to tamp down the hype machine this spring, it’s up front where 320-pound sophomore A’Shawn Robinson anchors the line.

“You’re sitting there with [Dalvin Tomlinson] back, [D.J. Pettway] back ... then this group of freshmen that just got here," Smart said, referencing a rookie class that includes Da'Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith. "So if those guys grow and continue to get better, that can be the strength of the team.

“We have more guys playing winning football at that position than we had last year.”

Inside linebacker is one spot where Alabama could use more depth. Outside of Trey DePriest, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, there aren’t many true inside linebackers with experience on the roster. That means playing more rookies and cross-training outside linebackers to shift inside, Smart said.

But the real concern for Alabama isn’t the front seven. The back end of the defense is still a lingering question mark. Both starting corners must be replaced, and there’s no word yet on who will settle in at safety opposite Landon Collins.

Smart called it a “unique situation” at safety in that he lost two players to the draft, yet he has some experience returning in Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, his two “older statesmen.” Then there’s Geno Smith, who transitioned from corner to safety last season and is “just starting to feel comfortable there.”

“At corner, we’ve got some of the same guys back from last year,” Smart said. “We’ve also got some big, young, new guys. So it’s hard to tell right now. They’ve got good athletic ability, and we hope to be better at that position.”

Is Smart happy with his depth at corner?

“You talk about depth, you’ve got what you’ve got,” he said, making reference to Bradley Sylve starting against Kentucky and Cyrus Jones’ time in relief of the oft-injured Deion Belue. “I can’t say I’m happy or disappointed."

If Eddie Jackson can come back from injury, he could be a big boost. Despite tearing his ACL this spring, he has been able to participate in fall camp, albeit while wearing a non-contact jersey.

Then there’s Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, Alabama’s pair of five-star prospects from the 2014 class. Both are on campus and expected to contribute right away.

“As far as Tony, he’s done a great job so far; you know he enrolled mid-year,” Smart said. “He’s worked really hard. He’s very conscientious. He’s always up here watching football. He’s a little bit of a football junkie. That makes him a better player because he really competes.”

If you were looking for Smart to tip his hand and say Brown would start, you were left somewhat disappointed. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything Alabama’s veteran defensive coordinator would commit to, other than the usual enthusiasm about his group moving forward.

Smart's defense may be better this season. It may answer all those questions at linebacker and cornerback and safety, and return Alabama to its status as the best in college football. But it’s not for Smart to say. He just works the process and sees what happens.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's time to face facts, Alabama.

It's been a few days since the debacle on The Plains and nothing is going to take the sting away from watching Chris Davis outrun the field goal team for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. The shock is still wearing off. Auburn is moving on to the SEC Championship Game and you're probably still questioning whether Nick Saban should have tried that long field goal from Adam Griffith, or better yet, whether he should have kicked it on fourth-and-one a few drives earlier. Maybe you're still reeling over Amari Cooper's dropped touchdown or the false start that negated what would have been a made field goal from Cade Foster.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillNick Marshall had a big day for Auburn against the Alabama defense.
Agonize over the what-ifs all you want. That's what these times are for. It will be a while until we know what bowl game Alabama will go to, and even then we'll come back to Saturday's Iron Bowl as the turning point in the season. But recognize that the most disturbing thing about Alabama's 34-28 loss to Auburn wasn't the coaching decisions, missed field goals or dropped passes. Those can be remedied. Those lessons can be learned.

Instead, what's most troubling was how Saban and Kirby Smart's defense once again failed to stop a spread, uptempo offense. Tre Mason ran inside and outside the tackles at will and Nick Marshall was able to evade the pass rush too easily. After that and what we saw earlier this season from Texas A&M, isn't it time to come to grips with the fact that Alabama needs to do something to slow down these types of attacks?

Gus Malzahn might indeed be the best offensive play-caller in the country. And, yes, Johnny Manziel is a freak of nature and arguably worthy of a second straight Heisman Trophy. Sometimes these things can't be helped. But the body of evidence is growing to suggest that Alabama has a real problem on its hands.

It's not like Saban and Smart didn't know what they were getting into. We heard all during the offseason how they were working to slow down Johnny Football and adjust to the tempo of no-huddle schemes. Alabama is nothing if not familiar with the work of Malzahn. There was more than enough tape from his time at Auburn and Arkansas State to know the zone-read was going to be a focal point of the game. Nothing they saw from either Auburn or Texas A&M was unfamiliar, except maybe the remarkable production their offenses gained on what's supposedly the best defense in college football.

"Their running game has had a lot of success against everybody all year long," Saban said after the loss at Auburn. "They have a very difficult offense to defend. Like I said, it takes a lot of discipline."

But discipline is what Saban's defenses have been known for all along. They don't go for the sack or the big play. Players are told to maintain their gaps and let the scheme work its magic. More often than not it does. Not against Auburn, though, which rushed for 296 yards, the most Alabama has given up since 2011. Auburn averaged 4.2 yards before contact on designed rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Alabama entered Saturday averaging an SEC-best 1.5 yards before contact per rush.

[+] EnlargeKirby Smart
Ned Dishman/Getty ImagesNick Saban and Kirby Smart have watched the Tide struggle with uptempo offenses.
"There were times when we did not defend the plays properly," Saban explained. "… We did not close and do the things we were supposed to do and they hit us for a couple of big runs.

"You certainly have to stop the run a little better than we did today to have a chance to beat a team like this."

Mason's 164 yards rushing was the third most of any player against Alabama in the last decade. Marshall's 99 yards on the ground was the most allowed by a quarterback in the Saban era. The zone-read Mason and Marshall ran accounted for 270 yards on 38 attempts. That 7.1 yards per carry average was nearly double what Alabama entered the game allowing on zone-read plays (3.4).

Said veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley: "On some plays we messed up on our technique and [Marshall] made us pay, and some plays he made on his own."

In short, Alabama didn't have an answer for Auburn, just as it didn't against Texas A&M earlier this season.

Lost in the Alabama's sprint toward an undefeated season was how the defense gave up a school-record 628 yards of offense that day in September. Manziel threw for 464 yards, many of which came on plays where he scrambled to buy time for his receivers. He ran for 98 more yards of his own. Mike Evans abused Alabama's cornerbacks to the tune of 279 yards receiving, the most in Texas A&M's history and the most the Tide had allowed since 2001. When the Aggies got on a roll, they couldn't be stopped.

Making sense of what Texas A&M and Auburn did to Alabama's defense won't be easy, but it's a job that must be done. If not, repeat performances will come next year and the year after that.

If Alabama wants to retain the mantle of the best defense in college football, it has work to do. Saban and Smart have shown they're some of the top minds in the game, but now maybe more than ever they have to prove it.

SEC predictions: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
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After two weeks, we're all tied up. As we've learned by watching the SEC Eastern Division race in recent seasons, no lead is safe.

After Chris correctly picked Georgia to beat South Carolina and I decided to stay on the Jadeveon Clowney train, we enter the weekend with identical 22-3 (.880) records. We both missed on Florida losing to Miami (Fla.).

It's a new week, and Saturday will serve as a chance for one of us to take the outright lead. Chris has been so giddy since watching the Dawgs take care of business against South Carolina. Sources told me that he was even spotted hanging with Drake and shooting hoops with LeBron. It makes me wonder how serious he is about the season. He's impressed with the past, but has he learned anything new since Saturday?

His Twitter has been pretty active the past couple of weeks …

I won't let Chris' win get to me. Champions don't do that. Champions just make adjustments and worry about what they can control. I like to call it my own process.

Meeko (the famous SEC blog cat) and I will be in the war room for the rest of the season meticulously dissecting every game from here on out.

Chris can have his famous friends and twit pics. I'll stick to winning.

Let's get to the picks:

SOUTHERN MISS at ARKANSAS

Edward Aschoff: The Razorbacks have run the ball better than anyone else in the SEC, and they have the league's leading rusher in freshman Alex Collins. Southern Miss ranks 82nd nationally in rushing defense, so expect another big game on the ground from the Hogs. … Arkansas 41, Southern Miss 14

Chris Low: Arkansas leads the SEC in rushing with an average of 312.5 yards per game. Southern Miss gave up 285 yards on the ground last week in a 56-13 loss to Nebraska. It all adds up to a 15th straight loss for the Golden Eagles. … Arkansas 37, Southern Miss 17

LOUISVILLE at KENTUCKY

Aschoff: After notching his first win at Kentucky, Mark Stoops now has to play BCS title contender Louisville -- and Teddy Bridgewater. Being at home should make things interesting early, but the Cardinals just have too much talent across the board. … Louisville 35, Kentucky 14

Low: Kentucky was unable to slow down Western Kentucky in the opener. Now, the Wildcats have to deal with Bridgewater and the Cardinals. Bridgewater might not wave off the punt team this week, but he will lead Louisville to its third straight win in the series. … Louisville 41, Kentucky 24

TENNESSEE at OREGON

Aschoff: The Vols are riding high as they head out West. But having to make a cross-country trip for what will feel like an early game against one of the nation's best teams will bring the Vols back down to earth before SEC play begins. … Oregon 45, Tennessee 17

Low: Butch Jones has them excited in Big Orange Country, and there’s a lot to like about what he’s done with that program. But reality sets in this week. The only drama in Eugene, Ore., will be whether or not the Vols can hold Oregon under 50. … Oregon 47, Tennessee 17

KENT STATE at LSU

Aschoff: The Tigers enter as a team still taking a backseat to Alabama and Texas A&M. That will probably be the case coming out of the weekend, too, but at least LSU won't be as beat up as the other guys. … LSU 45, Kent State 10

Low: LSU’s offense looks as potent as it has in some time, particularly in the passing game. The Tigers will cruise for a second straight week at home over outmanned Kent State, and then it’s on to Auburn and Georgia in back-to-back weeks. … LSU 48, Kent State 10

MISSISSIPPI STATE at AUBURN

Aschoff: We know how important conference openers are, and this game has been huge for both teams in recent seasons. A loss for either could serve as an emotional setback. Auburn's home field and it's entertaining running game will push the Tigers through in the fourth quarter. … Auburn 27, Mississippi State 20

Low: It’s hard to envision the loser of this game going on to have a successful season, which makes it a critical SEC opener for both teams. The Bulldogs have been solid on defense, but they don’t have enough juice on offense right now to go into Jordan-Hare Stadium and win. … Auburn 31, Mississippi State 20

VANDERBILT at SOUTH CAROLINA

Aschoff: With South Carolina's defense having struggled mightily last week and Vandy having some explosive elements to its offense, this one should be entertaining. There can't be excuses for Clowney, and I think he'll make sure of that Saturday. … South Carolina 30, Vanderbilt 21

Low: The Gamecocks can’t afford any more hiccups if they want to stay in the SEC championship hunt. They’ve had their struggles in recent seasons with Vanderbilt, too. The Commodores are painfully close to being unbeaten, but their drought against nationally ranked teams will extend to 14 straight games. … South Carolina 28, Vanderbilt 21

OLE MISS at TEXAS

Aschoff: Last season, Texas ran the Rebels out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. This season, Ole Miss heads to Austin, Texas, with a ton of confidence, while Texas players are licking their, uh, horns after an embarrassing loss to BYU. The Longhorns couldn't stop the run last week, and they won't do a very good job this week, either. … Ole Miss 35, Texas 31

Low: Texas would seem to be in disarray with Mack Brown having fired his defensive coordinator this week. Plus, Ole Miss has plenty of motivation after getting blown out at home last season by the Longhorns. But Texas is still Texas, and the Longhorns will find a way to salvage a little pride at home. … Texas 34, Ole Miss 30

ALABAMA at TEXAS A&M

Aschoff: It's the game of games. The contest to end all contests. Nick Saban versus Kevin Sumlin. Johnny Manziel versus AJ McCarron. The Aggies pulled the unthinkable last season, but Alabama has been steaming over that game for almost a year now. Johnny Football has shown improvement as a passer and he'll still be the slipperiest player on the field Saturday, but picking against Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart facing a team that bested them last season just sounds silly. … Alabama 31, Texas A&M 23

Low: Johnny Football ain’t talking this week. The Aggies prefer that he do all of his talking on the field (with his play). These two teams played a classic last November in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and it should again be a ball of fun. But the Tide will prevail thanks to keeping the ball away from Manziel and that Texas A&M offense and wearing down an Aggies defense that has been shaky. … Alabama 38, Texas A&M 28
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who's destined to be a head coach some day, will see his salary surpass the $1 million mark in 2013.

The Alabama board of trustees on Tuesday approved a new deal for Smart, which will make him the highest paid defensive coordinator in college football next season. Smart, who earned $950,000 last season, will make $1.15 million in 2013 and then $1.35 million in 2014 and 2015.

The Crimson Tide have finished first nationally each of the last two seasons in total defense and scoring defense en route to winning back-to-back national championships. They pulled it off last season despite losing six starters from the 2011 team that were selected in the NFL draft -- four among the top 35 picks.

The only other defensive coordinator in the SEC making more than $1 million is LSU's John Chavis, who will make $1.1 million in 2013.

Smart interviewed for the Auburn head coaching job earlier this year and has been mentioned in connection with several head coaching jobs over the last couple of years.
The SEC will have six new defensive coordinators in 2013, which includes a couple of coaches who were promoted.

D.J. Durkin was promoted at Florida after serving as linebackers coach and special teams coordinator the past three years. Geoff Collins was promoted at Mississippi State to run the defense. He was co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach the past two years for the Bulldogs.

When you survey the lineup of defensive coordinators in the SEC, it’s a reminder of how important defense is in this league.

During the SEC’s streak of seven straight national championships, only once has the team winning the title finished outside the top 10 nationally in total defense (Auburn was 60th in 2010).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that SEC schools pay top dollar for their defensive coordinators. In fact, 10 of the 14 are scheduled to make $500,000 or more next season.

Included in that group are three of the four newcomers, although Auburn’s Ellis Johnson is hardly new to the SEC. Johnson, who will earn $800,000 on the Plains, has made previous stops at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina as defensive coordinator.

Arkansas’ Chris Ash is set to earn $550,000 and Kentucky’s D.J. Elliot $500,000.

Currently, the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the SEC is LSU’s John Chavis, who’s scheduled to make $1.1 million in 2013.

However, look for Alabama’s Kirby Smart to get a bump from the $950,000 he made last season and join Chavis in the $1 million-plus club.

South Carolina’s Lorenzo Ward was recently given a new three-year deal that will pay him $650,000 per year.

Also, Texas A&M’s Mark Snyder is in line to get a significant raise from the $500,000 he made last season. His name came up in a couple of head coaching searches this past December, including Kent State.

Below is a look at the reported salary figures for the SEC defensive coordinators. Vanderbilt’s Bob Shoop isn’t listed because Vanderbilt is a private institution and doesn’t release salary information:
  • LSU’s John Chavis $1.1 million
  • Alabama’s Kirby Smart $950,000
  • Georgia’s Todd Grantham $850,000
  • Auburn’s Ellis Johnson $800,000
  • South Carolina’s Lorenzo Ward $650,000
  • Arkansas’ Chris Ash $550,000
  • Missouri’s Dave Steckel $550,000
  • Ole Miss’ Dave Wommack $550,000
  • Texas A&M’s Mark Snyder $500,000
  • Kentucky’s D.J. Eliot $500,000
  • Florida’s D.J. Durkin $490,000
  • Tennessee’s John Jancek $470,000
  • Mississippi State’s Geoff Collins $325,000

Video: Alabama DC Kirby Smart

January, 8, 2013
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Mark Schlabach speaks with Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart following the Crimson Tide's 42-14 rout of Notre Dame.

Focus hasn't shifted for Tide's Smart

January, 6, 2013
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Kirby Smart has coached two national-championship defenses at Alabama.

But there will always be a special place in his heart for the one he’s coaching right now and the one he will lead onto the Sun Life Stadium field Monday night in the Discover BCS National Championship.

“I’ll tell you, this group has probably been one of my most favorite to coach since I’ve been at Alabama,” said Smart, who's in his fifth season as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. “They didn’t have bad expectations, but a lot of the media, you guys, had bad expectations for this group.

“I never was worried about their competitive character. Sure, we lost some good players ... four or five [NFL] draft picks, whatever it was, we lost off that team. But we had a lot of good players behind those guys, and this group, to me, had a little chip on their shoulder and felt slighted that people didn’t think they’d be good.”

The actual number of draft picks Alabama lost off last season’s national championship defense was six, and there were more than a few people wondering whether Smart would be able to retool this group into the kind of unit that could get the Crimson Tide back onto this stage.

Well, here they are.

[+] EnlargeKirby Smart
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsAlabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart celebrates the nail-biting finish of the SEC title game.
“All we heard about was who we didn’t have on defense, and Coach Smart reminded us more than once what everybody was saying about us,” senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “All that mattered was that he believed in us, and we believed in each other.

“We weren’t going to be that defense that didn’t live up to the standard here at Alabama.”

Whatever happens Monday night against Notre Dame, this won’t go down as Alabama’s most talented defense, nor will it be remembered as the Crimson Tide’s most dominant defense.

But Smart loves the way this group fights, the edge it plays with and its penchant for coming up with stops in key situations.

The Crimson Tide lead the country in total defense, allowing 246 yards per game. They also lead the country in limiting plays that have gained 10 or more yards (105), and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t miss many tackles. They’ve allowed 54.7 rushing yards after contact per game this season, the second-lowest average in the country.

“We haven’t played great all the time, but we’ve played with great competitive character,” Smart said. “I mean, they have competed hard. We’ve been behind at LSU. We’ve been behind against Georgia. We lost to Texas A&M, but we were behind in that game and fought back.

“So every time these defensive guys have been challenged, they’ve responded.”

The best news for Alabama fans is that Smart is still running the Crimson Tide defense.

For several years, he’s been one of the hottest commodities in college football among assistant coaches, and he interviewed for the Auburn head-coaching job last month. There have been other head-coaching opportunities Smart has passed on.

He absolutely wants to be a head coach, but he’s also in a position that allows him to be picky.

“I have the best non-head-coaching job in the country, period,” said 37-year-old Smart, who earns $950,000 per year.

It’s why he doesn’t worry about where’s he’s going to be in three years or even 10 years.

“If you win, that takes care of itself,” Smart said, “and I’m not in such a hurry to run off and do anything. If I was 47, I might feel differently. But the most important thing to me right now is winning championships and developing young men into better players and better people.”

And although previous head-coaching experience is always a plus when you’re up for a job, Smart said there’s no substitute for the time he has spent under head coach Nick Saban.

“To me, personally, my development to become a head coach will be much better working for Coach Saban than necessarily going somewhere else because you learn every day that you’re in there,” said Smart, who was named the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year this season.

“The experience that I’ve been able to gain through being with [Saban] is, ‘Hey, this is how you run a major program. This is the way you do it, and this is the way you question every part of your organization, therefore making it better.’”

Smart's time will come to run his own program, probably sooner rather than later.

Right now, he's too busy winning championships to worry about when the right job will come along.

Video: Alabama's Kirby Smart

January, 5, 2013
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Mark Schlabach discusses the BCS title game with Alabama's defensive coordinator.

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