Alabama's defense hadn't been this bad in 17 years. The last time it sunk to such depths, Mike Shula was coach and had just lost the second-most games in program history (nine). That's one way to look at Alabama's 2020 national championship.
Here's another. Nick Saban spent a season doubling down on five words that changed the game: Good offense beats good defense. That's the best way to summarize the 2020 season as we wrap up the year-end statistics.
For a coach who made his bones intimidating quarterbacks, that statement was shocking. Alabama's offense has broken its season scoring average record each of the last three years. The need for those points reached an extreme in 2020.
The Crimson Tide won it all despite their worst defensive effort, statistically, since 2003. They won with the third-worst defense of any national champion in history (352.2 yards per game). That dates back to 1936, the so-called "wire-service era" when national championships were officially measured. Alabama's total defense in 2020 ranked only behind Auburn (368.4 yards in 2010) and Penn State (364.9 yards in 1982) for most allowed by a national champion. Alabama bumped LSU's 2019 defense (344.2 yards) from third to fourth on the list.
It's not that Alabama's defense was bad. It's all relative to what is good enough to win. In 2003, Shula's squad went 4-9 giving up more than 360 yards per game. That mark stands as Alabama's second-worst record since 1957, the year before Bear Bryant arrived. But it was a different game back then. That was the last year Alabama gave up more yards than it gained. In 2020, it averaged its most yards ever (542).
So you can see defense doesn't matter -- as much -- these days. Defensively, the game has become more about forcing turnovers and getting stops. Both cut down opponents' possessions. Fewer possessions, fewer opportunities to score. Alabama finished tied for third in turnover margin at +10 this season. That's the third time in four years Bama has ranked in the top five nationally in that category.
"You have to defend how you pick players to play certain positions," Saban said, "because the game is so much more a perimeter game now than it used to be."
It can be argued with confidence that Alabama had the best perimeter players in the game. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman Trophy. Jaylen Waddle may have been headed that way when he suffered a season-ending injury Oct. 24. Running back Najee Harris is the 14th Alabama rusher to average at least 5 yards per carry in a season since 2009 (minimum 46 carries).
All three players were part of Saban's 2017 recruiting class that were rostered for the best defense in the College Football Playoff era (260.4 yards, 2017) and the worst (352.2 yards, 2020).
Yes, the game is evolving fast. Since 2010, we've witnessed three of the worst defenses to win a national championship, two of them in the last two seasons.
"I don't think there's any question about the fact college football has changed dramatically in the last 10, 12 years," Saban said.
2020 statistical highlights
Scoring was up slightly in the abbreviated season with teams scoring 29.18 points per game. That's the seventh-highest average since stats were first compiled in 1937, less than a 1% increase from 2019 (28.93) but down 3% from the 2016's all-time high (30.08). The nine highest-scoring seasons have all occurred since 2012.
The MAC was the highest-scoring conference averaging 32.15 points per team, despite the small sample size this year. That's 5.06 points per game better than 2019 (27.09 points). It's also the highest mark for a conference since the Big 12 averaged 32.31 points in 2018. The MAC had three of the top nine scoring teams in the country and four of the top 18 in total offense. Watch Kent State, which played only four games (3-1) but scored at least 41 points in three of them. Coach Sean Lewis is a rising star as the youngest FBS coach at age 34.
Quarterbacks as a whole were the most accurate in history, completing 61.1% of their passes. Not surprisingly, the 234.6 per game passing average was the third-highest ever. Yards per attempt was second-highest at 7.44. The top six seasons in that category have all come in the last six years.
The individual pass efficiency record was smashed for the fifth straight season. In 2020, it was Alabama's Mac Jones (203.1) surpassing Joe Burrow's record set in 2019 at LSU (202.0). The preceding records set: Tua Tagovailoa in 2018 (199.4) and Baker Mayfield in 2017 (198.9) and 2016 (196.4). The pass efficiency formula favors few interceptions, lots of touchdown passes and explosive pass plays.
More to chew on: Two freshmen led the nation in interceptions for the first time in at least 20 years: Northwestern's Brandon Joseph and Georgia Southern's Derrick Canteen. Each had six picks ... Alabama's Smith was the third WR since 2012 to catch at least 23 touchdown passes. The only players to surpass him were West Virginia's Stedman Bailey (25 in 2012) and Fresno State's Davante Adams (24 in 2013) … averaging rushing yards (168.7) were the fewest since 2011.