Alabama and Michigan are ranked first and second, respectively, in the AP Top 25, and that’s not the only one-two punch the programs provide.
Through nearly two months of the 2016 college football campaign, the Crimson Tide and Wolverines have proved they boast the best defenses in the country.
Thanks to these elite units, both teams are leading contenders in the College Football Playoff chase. If either program eventually earns a berth to the four-team championship tournament—and perhaps the national title—defense will be the primary reason.
But between ‘Bama and Michigan, which unit is the best?
Alabama head coach Nick Saban has ruled the college football landscape for nearly a decade. From 2008 to 2015, his Crimson Tide teams never finished outside the top 12 in total defense and were top-five seven times. Even with the coordinator change from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama is still No. 3 this year.
That sustained success is a product of developing elite talent.
According to Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com, a personnel executive said he believes every member of the Tide’s front seven will eventually be selected in the first or second round of the draft.
Three of those players—Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams, along with cornerback Marlon Humphrey—were rated as top-50 prospects by Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller in his latest big board for the 2017 class. Ryan Anderson, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson highlight the rest of the front seven.
Per Scout, the Crimson Tide have signed a top-five class every year since 2012. Development is always the key, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have 4- and 5-star backups at each position.
Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t have the same luxury because he’s only been in Ann Arbor for two years, so Michigan’s depth at linebacker and in the secondary are a work in progress.
But the starters? Few concerns there. The ultra-versatile Jabrill Peppers—who is Miller’s No. 4 player—headlines the defense, while Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling are a lockdown duo at corner.
Opposing quarterbacks have a 1.5 QB Rating when throwing at Michigan CBs Jourdan Lewis & Channing Stribling this year. 11/39 131yds 0TD 4INT pic.twitter.com/IbubKab5ow
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) October 24, 2016
Other potential early-round picks include Taco Charlton and Chris Wormley, while top 2016 recruit Rashan Gary is on track to become a star.
Michigan isn’t flashy, but you can’t argue the effectiveness. And what the Maize and Blue lack (comparatively, at least) in personnel is minimized by an NFL-experienced coaching staff and the aggressive scheme of first-year coordinator Don Brown.
The Wolverines are No. 1 nationally in several major categories, including passing, total and scoring defense. They’re also first on third down, fourth in tackles for loss and have surrendered the fewest red-zone drives (six).
According to Football Outsiders, Michigan sweeps the S&P+ advanced metric categories of success against the run, against the pass, on standard downs, on passing downs and havoc rate.
No matter if you prefer basic stats or analytics, the result is the same: The Wolverines are really good.
Tale of the Tape
Team Total D Scoring D Sacks 3rd Down Takeaways Def TD Alabama 274.5 (4) 14.9 (7) 32 (1) 29.9 (14) 16 (12) 9 (1) Michigan 207.0 (1) 10.0 (1) 25 (4) 13.0 (1) 12 (51) 2 (15)
But there’s an even simpler way to explain Michigan’s dominance. In each of the team’s last three games, the defense has forced more punts than it has allowed first downs. Wisconsin moved the sticks eight times compared to nine punts, while Rutgers (two first downs, 16 punts) and Illinois (six first downs, seven punts) similarly struggled.
Alabama has allowed a few more yards, but Saban’s team owns a significant edge over the entire country. To beat the Crimson Tide, their opponent must keep the defense out of the end zone.
Which is completely absurd.
Through eight games, the unit has racked up nine touchdowns. Only against Kent State—a 48-0 blowout in which Xavian Marks took a punt return to the house—did Alabama’s defense not score.
"They don’t seem to struggle with a lot of anything to me," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said before his team’s Week 8 matchup with the Crimson Tide, according to Ben Jones of the Tuscaloosa News. "They’re a really good defense. What’s scary about them now, instead of just stopping you, they’re scoring points."
Alabama proceeded to seal a victory over the then-No. 6 Aggies thanks to a fumble-return touchdown from Allen.
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There’s no doubt the Crimson Tide have been more highlight-worthy than Michigan’s defense, which hasn’t scored since the season opener. Plus, Alabama leads the nation with four sacks per game and is averaging an FBS-best 10 tackles for loss in October.
While the Wolverines hold a slightly higher sack rate, per Football Outsiders, Alabama has practically matched the pace while challenging a staggering five Top 20 opponents in eight games. Michigan deserves credit for completely dominating inferior teams, but the Crimson Tide have manhandled some of the best competition in the nation.
As the schedule’s difficulty has increased, the Wolverines have managed a bit less pressure. They’re still keeping opponents off the scoreboard—and that’s what matters most—but have recorded 2.3 sacks per game in October compared to 4.8 for Alabama.
Michigan’s interior is tremendous at stopping the run, but the Crimson Tide are explosive in the middle—especially when they slide Allen, Tomlinson or Hand (seen below) inside for sub-packages.
Last snap of the game. Watch #9. Good luck against this front. https://t.co/iIxak5WXKG
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) October 24, 2016
While Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst are reliable defenders, they’re play-stoppers, not playmakers.
Is it better for a defense to rarely allow an opponent to move the ball, or would you rather a unit give up a few more yards but consistently produce points? Neither one is a perfect answer because both are excellent qualities.
The defenses are each the very definition of dominant, and either program would have the utmost confidence in its respective unit being on the field for a clutch moment.
No team would complain about having a defense like either unit. But if you have to pick one, the combination of depth, pass rush and game-changing plays should give Alabama a slight edge over an outstanding, championship-caliber Michigan defense.
All recruiting information viaScout. Stats from cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.