TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Terrence Cody's gut hanging over his belt got more laughs than ridicule during Nick Saban's first national championship season here in 2009.

Back then, Cody was a likeable 350-pound (on a lean day), two-time All-America run-stuffing defensive lineman. The owner of that gut long ago carved his place in Alabama history by blocking two field goals against Tennessee.

All due respect to that paunch, that ring and five subsequent seasons spent in the NFL, big guy, but where would you fit in here today?

"Very limited reps," said Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager and current Alabama color analyst.

"This will be the fastest, most athletic defense Nick Saban has ever had. Statistically it may not [show it], but every single guy on that field can move."

Unlike a lumbering nose tackle who, with the advent of spread offenses, would have literally seen the game pass him by.

A bye week for the nation's No. 1 team provides a convenient pause to consider its place in history. You already hear talk of this being Saban's best team at Alabama. A possible College Football Playoff run will have a final say.

A more intelligent discussion should be had over whether this is Saban's best defense. Considering the coach won five national championships built on a defensive foundation, it's a tasty query.

Heading into November, Alabama's defense is in a familiar spot -- in the top five nationally (No. 4) in total defense. That's despite losing five of the seven starters in the front seven and four draft picks overall from that side of the ball.

That defense has helped ravage opponents for 12 non-offensive touchdowns. Eight defenders have touchdowns. That's as many players as have done so on offense.

Since the beginning of 2015, no team has more sacks (84). That's 3.65 per game, a combined loss of 604 yards. Put that in perspective. That's essentially the equivalent of Louisville (617 offensive yards per game in 2016) being sacked on every play in a game.

Those are the tangibles. The intangibles are reflected in defensive lineman Jonathan Allen's full-on Olympian sack of Texas A&M's Trevor Knight.

Later, he ran away from the entire Aggies offense on a 30-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Allen is 290 pounds.

Jonathan Allen channels Superman against Texas A&M. USATSI

It's 307-pound defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, who broke up six passes in 2015, tying him for most in the SEC by a lineman. Tomlinson sharpened his skills as a three-time state high school wrestling champion. Imagine the nimbleness of a 6-foot-2, 300-pounder playing soccer as a high school senior.

Then imagine his future. Tomlinson got his finance degree in 3 ½ years and is planning on chasing a master's after he's done chasing quarterbacks.

"Just like the NFL, pretty much every day you're fighting for your job," Tomlinson said. "Here, we're going to play the best person ... If you don't get it right we're going to drop you to the 2s or 3s."

It's Mack Wilson, a budding five-star freshman linebacker ranked No. 15 overall in the 247Sports Composite, blowing up a Texas A&M kick returner so violently that Twitter itself blew up. Several outraged critics thought Wilson should have been ejected for targeting. No penalty was called.

It's junior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton making one of the largest one-month strength gains as a freshman -- at least 100-pound gains in the bench, squat, dead lift and power clean.

"I come here and in a month or two I max out at 455 [in the bench press]," Hamilton said. "It came from everything -- nutrition, working out all of that."

Allen was upset that Texas A&M gained 114 rushing yards on Saturday.

"Our goal last year was to keep [the opposition] under 20 yards," Tomlinson said.

The discussion remains layered and nuanced. If not the best, this defense is certainly different. The comparison has to start with 2011, generally regarded as Saban's best unit in his 10 seasons.

That group smothered opponents. It posted three shutouts and allowed 8.2 points per game. Nine players from that unit were drafted into the NFL. It capped off a title run by famously stifling LSU in the BCS Championship Game. It allowed only 12 touchdowns all season.

Through eight games this season, Alabama has given up an average of 14.9 points and, already, 11 total touchdowns.

But it's a changed game even from five years ago, based more on speed and guile than strength. Saban signaled that when he went all the way in with the zone read spread himself.

"That's why the SEC champion will always play for the national title," said Savage, a shrewd college talent evaluator also as executive director of the Senior Bowl. "Over the course of the season you've had a chance to play against a variety of offenses."

This Alabama D has to run better in reaction to spread offenses. It is lighter, if only slightly, in the front of Saban's famed 3-4 scheme -- (309 pound average in 2009, 305 in 2016)

That doesn't include linebacker Tim Williams, who leads the team in sacks (6.5). Williams had to make a decision on leaving early for the NFL in the offseason despite never having started a game.

He now has two career starts in 42 games. NFL scouts continue drooling.

"They did not have any elite super edge rushers in '09, '10 and '11," Savage said. "They always struggled getting pressure with four. Those [past] defenses needed to bring extra rushers to even get pressure."

There are only a handful of defenses each season that can bring consistent pressure with their base front four. Recently, Alabama is one of them.

Allen posted the defense's highest grades against Texas A&M, according to Pro Football Focus. He had eight pressures, including that eye-popping sack the website called "the most impressive play from a defensive lineman ... all season long."

Five Alabama players had at least three quarterback pressures on Knight. The pressure comes so frequently the opposition gets sacked an average of every 9.2 dropbacks this season. Only Florida is better in the SEC in that category, 8.4.

It may be time to say goodbye, then, to the common theory that dual-threat quarterbacks are Alabama's kryptonite. Against mobile quarterbacks from Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas A&M, the Tide have 11 sacks and a combined 26 tackles for loss this season.

Defeated in that run are the only two active quarterbacks to beat Alabama -- Knight and Chad Kelly.

Take five starters, four draft choices and a coordinator (Kirby Smart) off any defense, and it is bound to slip.

"Our defense is going to be faster," Williams told SECCountry.com in the spring. "It's just relentless. You have to have something in your heart to play in our defense."

There are few jobs more stressful than playing in Saban's secondary. It's fair to say the coach considers himself an expert on every aspect of the back four. Saban was a defensive back at Kent State in the early 1970s.

Sophomore corner Minkah Fitzpatrick is typical of the Alabama DB who earns time playing in nickel packages before he gains Saban's trust. In two seasons, Fitzpatrick has four career touchdowns, three of them Pick Sixes.

That's two fewer touchdowns than the SEC's current leading rusher, Auburn's Kamryn Pettway, has in his career (six).

"That's kind of what it does when we score on defense," Fitzpatrick said Saturday. "It gives us a whole lot of momentum and drive on defense. And it takes the wind out of the other team's offense.

"When we shut them down like we did [Saturday], ain't nobody can beat us."

New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt already had a reputation of succeeding against spread offenses at Georgia. The next challenge is replacing All-America safety/punt returner Eddie Jackson, who is out of the season with a broken leg.

Saban revealed part of himself Saturday. He said the Tide were playing mostly dime coverage in the back before being gouged by the Aggies' rush. Saban then decided to switch to a nickel, dropping another player into the box.

A close game became a second-half blowout. For Saban to go to that cursory level of detail suggests he must be fairly content with his team.

It also suggests Terrence Cody certainly would have issues finding a spot these days.

"When they say they've gotten lighter and leaner, there's definitely a level of quickness," Savage said.

And a level of confidence.

"Whenever teams make plays against us, it's us not doing what we're supposed to do," Fitzpatrick said in a rare moment of candor. "There's nobody better than us."