By JOHN ZENOR
The Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Alabama's defense had to replace its biggest stars, lacks a dominant pass rusher and has a secondary that Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick thinks is vulnerable.
Nevertheless, scrap those invites to the pity party.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide's defense might not be the smothering, star-studded group of last year's national title team. Yards have still been harder to come by against 'Bama than any other defense in the country, and -- stats aside -- this unit has earned the particular affection of coordinator Kirby Smart.
"This group has probably been one of my most favorite to coach since I've been at Alabama because of the expectations," Smart said. "They didn't have bad expectations, but a lot of the media -- you guys had bad expectations for this group."
Alabama leads the nation in total (246.0) and rushing yards allowed (79.8) and is second both against the pass and, behind Notre Dame, in scoring defense.
The Tide was tops in all those categories last season but also had dominant stars -- and high draft picks -- like Mark Barron, Dont'a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick and fierce pass rusher Courtney Upshaw.
Now, there are "only" two All-Americans -- linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback Dee Milliner -- instead of four to face the top-ranked Fighting Irish on Monday night for the BCS championship.
Riddick sees a front seven of linemen and linebackers that he says has been virtually immoveable. It's the defensive backs -- head coach Nick Saban's specialty -- where he sees potential for big plays. Maybe from him and a deep group of running backs or quarterback Everett Golson with star tight end Tyler Eifert and receiver T.J. Jones.
"I think we can exploit their secondary because we have some great playmakers on the outside," said Riddick, who has 35 catches and 880 rushing yards. "What can I say? We can't wait for this game."
Neither can Milliner, who said the DBs draw motivation from doubters.
"I'm glad they'd say something like that just because it makes me want to play even more and go out there and make plays, our secondary also," said Milliner, the only real star DB and a likely first-round pick. "We've been hearing that all season, that we're the group that can be exploited. We're just trying to go out there and pride ourselves on making plays and being a great secondary.
"Since they think we're the weak links of the team, hopefully they'll try to exploit us like they said. And we'll make plays and change their mind."
Jones was much more complimentary of Alabama's secondary, saying it was the most athletic and best the Fighting Irish will play this season. He said Alabama also employs more man coverage than anybody they've faced.
Opposing quarterbacks have had success at times against Alabama. LSU's Zach Mettenberger passed for 298 yards and Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel threw for 253 and ran for 92. Georgia's Aaron Murray fired away for 265 yards in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Cornerback Deion Belue, like Milliner, wasn't surprised by Riddick's comment and wouldn't be shocked if Notre Dame threw the ball around at Miami's Sun Life Stadium.
"It's been the same problem all year long," said Belue, an immediate starter after transferring from junior college. "This is the last game of the season, and we've just got to show up once again.
"We're confident, like always."
Alabama has intercepted 17 passes, four more than last season, but is giving up 55 more yards a game through the air.
Linebacker Nico Johnson said the DBs have looked good in practice leading up to the title game.
"They will play with a chip on their shoulder because they feel like this is our chance on a big stage to show what we really can do," Johnson said. "They think that after the SEC championship game they didn't play their best ball. All of them were kind of down on themselves because they feel like they let us down as a front seven. I keep telling them, 'No, y'all didn't do that. We're a unit.'
"We're going to focus on the mistakes that we made and correct them. But I think they're going to come in with the right mind-set and a lot of intensity."