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For Nick Saban and Alabama, it all starts with the defense

For Nick Saban and Alabama, it all starts with the defense

TAMPA, Florida (AP) — Nick Saban goes through an exhausting checklist when discussing what it takes to have the nation's best defense.

The Alabama coach starts with some of the basics: being physical, playing with toughness, good tackling. He moves on to having a secondary that knows how to attack the ball. Then, his voice rising and really getting on a roll, he rips off stopping the run, avoiding big plays, limiting third-down conversions and playing well in the red zone. Finally, he talks about forcing a lot of turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback.

"If you do those things, you become hard to score on, and that's the number one goal when you play defense," Saban said. "How many points did you give up?"

Not many.

Top-ranked Alabama (14-0) comes into the national championship game against Clemson having allowed fewer points (11.4 per game) and total yards (244.0) than any team in the country.

Of course, that's nothing new in Tuscaloosa. Defense is unquestionably the hallmark of what's shaping up as the greatest dynasty in college football history, a run that puts Saban and the Crimson Tide on the brink of their fifth national title in eight years.

Going back to 2008, which is when this run of dominance really began, Alabama has led the nation in total defense three times and ranked lower than fifth only once (back in 2014, when they plummeted all the way to 12th). When it comes to points, the category that really matters, the Tide has been the nation's stingiest team three times and never dipped below sixth.

Maybe that's why Saban acted like it was no big deal to bring in a new offensive coordinator a week before the biggest game of the season.

Alabama's defensive dominance starts on recruiting day, of course.

Saban usually has better players than everyone else, an advantage he readily acknowledges.

Among the defensive players signed by Saban, no fewer than nine have gone on to be first-round picks in the NFL draft, seven were selected in the second round, and nine more went in the later rounds.

The 2017 draft figures to keep the theme going, with defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and linebackers Reuben Foster and Tim Williams all projected as possible first-round draft picks.

The thing that really makes this defense stand out, even more than the ones that came before at Alabama, is its knack for scoring off turnovers. The Tide defenders have got to the end zone 11 times, which in addition to four more TDs from the special teams has created a whole new term in the football lexicon.

NOTs, a.k.a. Non-Offensive Touchdowns.

"First and foremost, we can't let them score on defense or special teams," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "If they do that, you're probably getting beat."

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

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For more AP college football coverage: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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