Alabama football: Notre Dame isn't Notre Dame, which is both good and bad for the Crimson Tide
It was quite popular last week, to the point where BTS considered writing a pop song about it, to take a glance at the 2020-21 College Football Playoff matchups and react with an eye-roll that could be seen all the way to South Bend.
That was the sentiment, scoffed with predictable authority, by Alabama fans thoroughly convinced that their beloved Crimson Tide cannot possibly lose another game — and that any defensive assistant coach responsible for giving up the next point to an opposing team should be fired.
The Fighting Irish, it was reasoned by those pondering which 3 vegetables they would pair with their meat at City Cafe in Northport, couldn’t possibly hang with the mighty Crimson Tide. Notre Dame, they figured incredulously while waiting in the “Hot Now” line on McFarland Boulevard, is a has-been program — a shell still living off the echoes and divorced from the reality of Joyless Murderball.
The program that begat “Rudy” couldn’t possibly hang with Forrest Gump, let alone Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. And Rudy was offsides anyway, right?
The problem with this sterling logic is, well, it isn’t logical. Notre Dame is, dare we say it … legit?
Look, we aren’t saying the Fighting Irish should be the favorites when they line up as the No. 4 seed against top-seeded Alabama at AT&T Stadium on Friday. Our friends in the desert have taken great pains to install the Crimson Tide as a 20-point favorite for a reason. But loathe unto anyone who doesn’t believe Notre Dame doesn’t both belong in the tournament and has at least a puncher’s chance at taking down the Tide.
Let’s start with the Notre Dame offense. This is a unit that is led by an underrated quarterback in Ian Book — a senior who will test the Tide with his escapability as much as his arm. At 30-4, Book has more wins than any other quarterback in school history. And his 88.2 winning percentage is only behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (97.1 percent) among active FBS quarterbacks. Book is also the only Power 5 quarterback with more than 240 pass attempts and fewer than 2 interceptions in 2020. When you combine that ball protection with a player who is second in Notre Dame history in career passing yards, touchdown passes, rushing yards by a quarterback, total offense and points responsible for … well, he is someone that needs to be reckoned with.
“I think it’s certainly going to be a challenge for our defense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Book. “I think their entire offensive team will be a great challenge for us because of the great balance they have on offense, their ability to run the ball, also make explosive plays in the passing game, and the quarterback’s ability to make all the throws as well as extend plays with his feet, scramble and run.
“He’s certainly a dual-threat guy that presents a lot of problems for us, and we’re going to have to be very disciplined in terms of the way we play and everyone doing their job if we’re going to have a chance to be successful against Ian Book and the Notre Dame’s offense.”
Another huge factor that Saban and the Tide assistant coaches are concerned with is the Notre Dame offensive line. Nearly lost in the 647-yard, 48-point defensive “effort” Alabama showed against Ole Miss is that the Rebels racked up 268 rushing yards and 4 rushing scores that night in Oxford. And while only 1 of Alabama’s final 6 opponents ran for 100 yards, the Gators also scored 3 rushing TDs on the Tide in Atlanta. Notre Dame’s running game is stout, with freshman tailback Kyren Williams tallying 6 100-yard rushing games. And the Irish’s experienced offensive line, led by left tackle Liam Eichenberg, has a chance to push around Alabama up front.
“I think these guys are really, really good,” Saban said of Notre Dame’s offensive line. “They have a lot of experience. They’ve played together for a long time. They don’t miss their targets very often. They finish blocks. They play hard. They’re physical. And I think that’s probably the best word to describe them on both sides of the ball up front is they’re very physical. But these guys do a really good job. They don’t make very many mistakes, I can tell you that.”
The third factor that Alabama simply cannot overlook is Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. This isn’t the same coach who led the Fighting Irish to the January 2013 BCS national title game only to become a speed bump en route to Alabama’s 42-14 victory. Kelly clearly learned a valuable, if harsh lesson that night at what is now Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida: Notre Dame must get bigger, faster and just plain better if they can hang with college football’s elite.
“I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Brian Kelly wherever he’s been a coach,” Saban said. “He’s had a tremendous amount of success. I think their team reflects the kind of team that anybody would want to coach in terms of how they compete, how hard they play, sort of the discipline and all the intangible things you try to develop and build in your team and in your program. And I think they do it extremely well, and that’s obviously a great compliment to him and his leadership and ability to get his team to be able to play that way on a consistent basis.”
In other words, this isn’t your grandpa’s Notre Dame. Heck, it isn’t even the Notre Dame of 7 years ago.
The Fighting Irish, in its first and likely only ACC season, proved itself plenty elite and worthy of a CFP berth. Now, can Notre Dame climb the highest peak in college football and take down No. 1?