Alabama's defense shut out four opponents during the 2012 football season, held Notre Dame to 124 first-half yards in January's BCS title blowout and led the nation in both fewest points and fewest yards allowed.
Terms such as "stingy" and "unrelenting" were routinely tossed around as the Crimson Tide marched to a third national championship in four seasons, but defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has a different recollection. Smart believes "subpar" better accompanies last year's defense.
"We kind of have a standard here at Alabama, and a lot of people think our standard is to be first in the SEC or to be first in the country in third-down, red-zone or run defense," Smart said. "We don't go by that motto. We go by being the best Alabama defense there has been. We compare ourselves against the last five years of Alabama defenses, and when you do that, last year's defense was not exactly up to par.
"It was not exactly spectacular, so we think we've got a lot of room to improve on defense, and we think we can do that."
The Crimson Tide allowed 250 yards and 10.9 points per game last season, which indeed was off from the 2011 BCS championship team that yielded 183.6 yards and 8.2 points per game. The 2011 Tide led the nation in the five major defensive categories - points, total yards, rushing yards, passing yards and pass efficiency - whereas last year's version was tops in points, total yards and rushing yards.
Alabama had cornerback Dee Milliner, linebacker Nico Johnson and defensive linemen Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial selected in April's draft, but a healthy seven starters return for Smart and head coach Nick Saban. The most notable is senior linebacker C.J. Mosley, who announced in December that he was returning for a final college season.
Mosley was a finalist for last year's Butkus Award after leading the Crimson Tide with 107 tackles, the most by an Alabama player since DeMeco Ryans made 126 and Roman Harper added 111 in 2003. Alabama's second-leading tackler last season was linebacker Trey DePriest, who had 59.
Crimson Tide players have dealt with the potential of college football's first three-peat ever since they throttled the Irish in Miami, but Mosley insists there is no sense of entitlement.
"Basically, our winning keeps us humble," Mosley said, "and it makes us sure that we're living in the moment and not looking ahead to games or thinking about back-to-back championships or things like that."
Mosley, cornerback Deion Belue and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix were tabbed as first-team preseason All-SEC selections at last month's media days, while defensive linemen Xzavier Dickson, Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and safety Vinnie Sunseri were second-team picks.
Throw in DePriest, a third-team pick, and Alabama again has a defense that is expected to be the very best in the very best conference.
"We've been molded to be the leaders that we are," Hubbard said. "The Dont'a Hightowers and the Courtney Upshaws and the Mark Barrons have come before, and we're just passing the reins on and on and on. There is no ceiling for what we want to do."
Alabama was able to dominate every opposing offense last season except for LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. A&M's up-tempo Aggies entered Tuscaloosa last November and pulled off a 29-24 upset as quarterback Johnny Manziel threw for 253 yards and rushed for 92.
Ole Miss also had a fast-paced offense in Hugh Freeze's first season, and more are on the way this year with Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee.
"Seven of the 12 teams we play do hurry-up, so it's a big emphasis," DePriest said.
Smart admitted the Tide have simulated up-tempo offenses a lot more this August than in recent years but said the increase isn't a concern. After all, LSU and Georgia had success against the Tide last year with pro-style offenses, and one of the bigger nightmares Smart has experienced was Georgia Southern's triple-option offense that amassed 302 rushing yards in 2011.
Adjusting to new styles is part of Smart's job, but his objective never changes from season to season.
"We want to be the best Alabama defense that there has been," he said.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.