This preview article was previously published December 13th and republished for tonight’s game.
The Matchup: #1 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. #2 Alabama (12-1)
When: Monday, January 7th
Where: Miami Gardens, FL
Game Time: 8:30 PM ET
What you need to know about Notre Dame: While maybe failing to meet your eye test with a passing grade, the Irish are truly built like an SEC team. As evidenced by the last six national championships, teams around the country are trying to replicate the success of the SEC. Teams are building bulkier defensive front sevens and power running games with multiple 200-pound running backs to carry the load. That’s exactly what Brian Kelly has done with Notre Dame.
We’ll start with the Irish’s bread and butter – defense. The Irish are the #1 scoring defense in the country, allowing their opponents only 10.3 points per game, and are ranked #4 in the country in rushing defense. While Manti Te’o is the face of the defense and team as a whole, the front seven is very good, and they’re very big. All three defensive linemen are north of 300 pounds, and nose tackle Louis Nix is 340 pounds. In addition to a bulkier defensive line, the Irish’s lightest of the four starting linebackers is 240 pounds. That’s SEC size, anyway. The secondary, much like Alabama, is the biggest weakness of the Irish’s defense. This group is ranked 21st in the country, with their opponents averaging over 194 yards per game through the air.
While Te’o gets all the love with his 103 tackles and seven picks, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is the player Alabama needs to know about. He leads the Irish with 12 sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
The formula to beat Alabama has been having a dual-threat quarterback. Sophomore Everett Golson does fit that mold, but can he turn into Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow or Cam Newton for one game? Golson has thrown for 2,135 yards for 11 touchdowns and is completing just under 59 percent of his passes. He’s efficient and smart with the football, but he’ll have to be an impact player against Bama, as opposed to just a game manager, as he’s been all season.
The Irish’s offense feeds off the power running game. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are the two backs who get the bulk of the carries. Riddick has rushed for 880 yards and five touchdowns, while Wood has rushed for 740 yards and four touchdowns but averages 6.7 yards per carry. Both are around 200 to 215 pounds.
Tight End Tyler Eifert leads the team in receptions with 44 for 624 yards and four touchdowns, and he could become a mismatch for Bama’s linebackers. That will be an interesting matchup and one Nick Saban is game planning for as we speak. Receiver TJ Jones has caught 43 passes for 559 yards and four touchdowns, but there isn’t a receiver on the roster like Bama’s Amari Cooper.
Alabama’s offensive line will get all the pub in this game, and rightfully so, but the Irish have allowed fewer sacks on the season with just 16, compared to the Tide’s 23. It’s a big and physical offensive line that has had success moving around defensive linemen all year for their running backs.
The Irish are 71st in the country in punting and 45th in field goals, and special teams will be a key portion of the game that Notre Dame must excel at as part of their formula to beat Bama. Forcing the Tide to make long drives on a consistent basis will be massive in terms of game outcome implications.
What you need to know about Alabama: The Tide have a chance to win their third national championship in four years, and no team in the BCS era has won it in back-to-back years – not USC, not Florida. The Tide enter the national championship on the heels of winning the SEC Championship against Georgia, a game that literally came down to five yards.
Despite losing six starters on defense, the Tide merely reloaded by throwing their blue-chip recruits right into the fire. And they’ve handled it with ease. The Tide are #2 nationally in scoring defense, directly behind the Irish, and they are #1 in total defense, allowing opponents only 246 yards of total offense per game. The Tide don’t feature a dominant pass rusher, which is slightly different than their past few teams, but they do play a collective scheme that wreaks havoc on opposing offenses. Nick Saban is the best in the business at disguising blitzes and making life tough for quarterbacks. The youngster Everett Golson will have his hands full. The strength of the defense is straight up the middle, starting with nose tackle Jesse Williams. Along with Williams, All-American linebacker CJ Mosley and safety Robert Lester make up an experienced bunch that has been on the big stage before. The Tide features lockdown corner Dee Milliner, but the front seven will have to be on their game with the Irish’s running game.
Bama’s offense features the power running game with Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon, with an experienced quarterback in AJ McCarron to make plays down the field in play action. Lacy has rushed for 1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Yeldon has rushed for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman. Lacy is the best back now, but Yeldon’s ceiling is higher as a future star. The Tide’s offensive line will be another challenge in itself for the Irish, as it will be the biggest and best line their front seven has faced all season.
AJ McCarron has made great strides since ‘11 in becoming a big downfield arm that can stretch the defense. He currently leads the country in passing efficiency, and he’s thrown for 2,669 yards with 26 touchdowns, compared to just three interceptions. McCarron has completed nearly 67 percent of his passes. He’s a good quarterback who’s great at managing the game. McCarron’s ace receiver is freshman Amari Cooper. Cooper has caught 53 passes for 895 yards and nine touchdowns. Fellow receiver Kevin Norwood will have to be the force he was against LSU last season in the national championship game. Norwood is the second leading receiver, with 26 catches for 395 yards and four touchdowns. But Cooper’s ability to stretch the defense will be the key in attacking the weakest part of the Irish’s defense in the secondary.
Alabama ranks 18th in the country in punting and is tied with Notre Dame for 45th in field goals. Nick Saban knows field position will be huge, and he’ll look to win that special teams battle.
By the numbers:
|Scoring Offense||38.5 ppg||26.8 ppg|
|Total Offense||439.1 ypg||421.3 ypg|
|Rush Offense||224.62 ypg||202.5 ypg|
|Pass Offense||214.5 ypg||218.8 ypg|
|Scoring Defense||10.7 ppg||10.3 ppg|
|Total Defense||246 ypg||286.8 ypg|
|Rush Defense||79.77 ypg||92.42 ypg|
|Pass Defense||166.2 ypg||194.4 ypg|
Who has the edge? While Notre Dame is built to play against the SEC as a better fit than other past challengers like Oregon and Ohio State, the one thing that sets apart the SEC in addition to defense is speed. And Alabama has a whole lot of it with players like Lacy, Yeldon and Cooper just on offense. We know Notre Dame’s defense is bulky enough to make an impact on the Bama running game, but are they fast enough when plays break outside? The SEC excels sideline to sideline, and that sets them apart from other conferences.
The formula to beat Alabama involves a running quarterback who makes explosive plays with his arms and his legs – think Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. We’ve already talked about that. The formula also involves winning the turnover battle, and Notre Dame will have to force multiple turnovers to win. The Tide were -6 in turnover margin against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia – the three closest games the Tide played all season.
Alabama has the edge against the Irish’s offense, too. With an inexperienced quarterback in Golson, the Tide will look to make life difficult for the youngster. He’s a good-looking prospect who has shown he can make plays with his arms and his legs, but he hasn’t been on the biggest stage before. How will he react?
The two things that stand out to me about Alabama that gives them the true edge are their experience and their offensive line. The Tide have been there and done that. They’ve been on the nation’s biggest stage every single week, and several players on the current roster have won two national championships in the last three years. The Tide have taken everyone’s best shot in ‘12 and survived, but so has Notre Dame, right? The biggest advantage heading into the game is the experience for the Tide.
And their biggest on-the-field advantage lies with their offensive line. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and company face defensive lines and linebackers Notre Dame’s size week-in and week-out, and the Irish haven’t faced an offensive line as big or as talented as Alabama all year. After all, we are talking about the line that just blocked for 350 rushing yards against Georgia, who probably has the most defensive draft picks of anyone in the country.
Notre Dame really reminds me of Florida in the way they win games with defense, have a stout running game and continually play to the level of their competition. They’ll have to play their best game of the season against the Tide.
College football’s biggest stage will not be a letdown. Get your popcorn ready.
Photo Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports