by John Vannie
Most college football experts correctly assumed that Alabama would be in Miami on January 7th to play for the national championship, but literally no one believed the Crimson Tide’s opponent would be the University of Notre Dame. Despite a 12-0 record and number one ranking, there is still a lack of respect for the Fighting Irish among oddsmakers and pundits. Fortunately, none of these slights will matter at kickoff on Monday night, which is scheduled for approximately 8:30 PM EST at Sun Life Stadium.
While the Tide is attempting to win its third title in the past four seasons, Notre Dame is returning to the big stage after a 24-year absence. No Irish player was alive when Lou Holtz’ team beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1989. The program’s resurgence under Brian Kelly was not expected to occur this soon, and many questioned whether Notre Dame would ever climb back into this position. Good fortune has contributed to this turnaround season, and even skeptics are beginning to wonder whether the Irish are a team of destiny. The beauty of this matchup is not lost on ESPN, who is already anticipating the largest television audience in college football history.
Despite the external hype, both teams are trying to keep a low profile with closed practices and predictably bland media sound bytes. The only story of note has been the status of Alabama’s All-American offensive lineman Barrett Jones, who has been kept on the sidelines due to an injured foot. That issue was resolved on Wednesday when Jones returned to practice, and his ability to play with pain has been well-documented during his impressive career.
These teams have not played each other since 1987, and the most memorable game between them was at the Sugar Bowl for the national championship following the 1973 season. The Irish won that game in a mild upset by 24-23, and although Alabama fans have not forgotten it they are not unduly concerned this time around. Despite the mythology that once surrounded Notre Dame, the Southeastern Conference has emerged during the last decade as the preeminent football empire. This conference has produced the last six national champions, but Tide Coach Nick Saban is a notorious worry-wart who will not let his charges take the Irish lightly.
Notre Dame may be playing with house money at this point in its dream season, but Kelly has adopted a “business trip” approach to the championship game. His players are an unusually cohesive unit and are quietly confident regarding their chances. It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain their poise early in the contest when the reality of the moment is upon them, especially when one considers that their opponent will feel right at home in this environment.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. ALABAMA’S DEFENSE
The Tide surrendered only 139 points in 13 games this season, but three quality opponents (LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia) averaged nearly 25 points against them. It’s not unthinkable to predict that the balanced Irish offense will score between 20 and 25 in this contest. The keys to success are the poise exhibited by quarterback Everett Golson and the effectiveness of Kelly’s play calling strategy in the red zone. Golson has demonstrated significant improvement during the course of the season after a deer-in-the-headlights start against Michigan in September. Kelly has struggled at times to get his team across the goal line with an over-reliance on empty backfield sets and fade passes, and he will have to do better while matching wits with an accomplished defensive strategist in Saban.
Notre Dame has averaged 202 rush yards per game, but will find it difficult to make headway against Alabama’s deep and talented 3-4 alignment. Nose tackle Jesse Williams anchors the front line, and he was sorely missed when he sat out part of the SEC Championship against Georgia. Williams is flanked by ends Damion Square and Ed Stinson, with Quinton Dial in reserve. Leading tackler C. J. Mosely leads a large and agile linebacker corps, and he is not even and every down player. Mosely is particularly effective in pass coverage and shares time with the run-stuffing Nico Johnson. Trey DePriest is a strong presence in the middle while Adrian Hubbard leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss. Overall, this is a deep and impressive front seven with several future NFL players.
The Irish will find it difficult to go right at this bunch as they shed blocks very well and are stout up the middle. Getting the ball outside and making Alabama defend in space may be the best option, and Golson has the ability to frustrate the Tide with scripted runs and improvised scrambles. Kelly will not want to expose him to multiple hard hits, however, so the game plan will largely be one in which Notre Dame spreads the field and looks to create favorable individual matchups. An up-tempo style may be employed by Kelly to keep Saban from situational substitutions if a particular alignment is generating positive momentum.
Cornerback Dee Milliner leads a physical secondary that is well-coached and fundamentally sound. If the Irish are to have success through the air, cornerback Deion Belue appears to be the target of choice as teams generally avoid Milliner. Two hard-hitting safeties, Robert Lester and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, are backed up by Nick Perry and Vinnie Sunseri. All play significant minutes, as does freshman nickel back Geno Smith. Again, the depth of the Crimson Tide defense is quite impressive.
Notre Dame’s offensive line will face its most difficult challenge this season. They must create enough running lanes to keep the Tide honest and Golson from too many third and long situations. One thing the Irish have going for them is they have protected the quarterback quite well in the pocket and Alabama does not have a dominant pass rush. The problem is that opponents have not been able to get many folks open downfield against them. Notre Dame’s receivers need to run precise routes and Golson must get the ball out on time to be successful. The attack should benefit from the return of DaVaris Daniels to the lineup after a two month injury absence. “He’ll play a role and we hope it’s a significant role in what we do,” Kelly said.
ALABAMA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The question on everyone’s mind is whether the Irish front seven can slow down Alabama’s powerful running game. Most experts believe they do not have the depth and stoutness to withstand the Tide’s massive offensive line and tandem of talented backs in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. The matchup between Barrett Jones and Notre Dame’s nose tackle Louis Nix is critical. Nix has been able to occupy two blockers and allow Manti Te’o to make over 100 tackles this season, but that strategy won’t work if Jones can handle Nix and guards Antony Steen and Chance Warmack consistently get to the second level. The Irish may indeed have early success while the starters are fresh, but fatigue may prove to be an issue in the second half as Saban will continue to pound the ball even if he is behind on the scoreboard. The Tide was successful in this regard in coming from behind to defeat LSU and Georgia, and almost overcame a significant deficit against Texas A&M.
Alabama’s offensive strategy is elegant in its simplicity. When opponents are forced to commit additional personnel to stop the run, quarterback A.J. McCarron will throw the deep ball to freshman standout Amari Cooper, or toss a screen pass to a running back who will be escorted downfield by an imposing convoy of blockers. The success of the plan is evident in McCarron’s 67% completion rate and 26 touchdown passes against only three interceptions.
Cooper is an emerging star at wide receiver who got his chance when veteran Kenny Bell suffered a broken leg earlier this season. Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones are also in the mix, but Bell may not be ready to be a factor in this game. Saban often deploys a pair of tight ends to create a devastating set of blockers for Lacy and Yeldon. Michael Williams is a huge presence at 6’6” and 270 pounds who can also catch the ball, while Kelly Johnson usually lines up as an H-back and lead blocker. This running scheme often allows the backs to get several yards downfield before the defense can make contact, and consequently there are a more than a few missed tackles as both are powerful, compact runners who stay low.
Disciplined pursuit and crisp tackling are essential for Notre Dame. The Tide will focus on blocking Te’o, so the rest of the linebackers must make stops while the linemen occupy potential blockers. This is a tall order, but essential in a game that will come down to strength against strength. The odds will tip in favor of the Irish if they can force McCarron to throw the ball more than planned. His arm is only average and he is visibly uncomfortable when pressured in the pocket. Alabama’s linemen are noticeably less adept at pass blocking than as road-graders in a downhill rushing attack, so they will stick to the run on third and long more frequently than most teams.
Kelly made it clear that a lack of overall depth has impacted Notre Dame’s special teams this season, but he expressed a willingness to commit additional starters to his return and cover teams in this game. The Irish have capable return men in George Atkinson on kickoffs and Davonte Neal on punts, but their productivity has suffered from subpar blocking. Any additional resources Kelly can apply to this area will be a plus.
Alabama has a pair of quality return men in Christion and Cyrus Jones. Christion has a 99-yard kickoff return for touchdown to his credit this year. The Tide’s cover teams are sound but not spectacular, so the Irish must try to gain every available yard of field position in this contest.
Kyle Brindza has had a few rocky moments this season, but his performance against USC was solid and included a 52-yard blast right before halftime. Punter Ben Turk did not have a stellar year but will need to raise his game (and his kicks) to a higher level. Alabama’s Jeremy Shelley handles extra points and field goals under 40 yards, and has not missed a three-pointer all season. Cade Foster is a mediocre four of nine on long field goals, while Cody Mandell is definitely an above average punter.
Alabama has accumulated a set of impressive if not overwhelming statistics. Their average margin of victory is 28 points and they have outgained teams by nearly 200 yards per game. The Tide converted 47% of third down chances while allowing opponents to be successful only 32% of the time. Saban’s defense has forced a three and out nearly 45% of the time. The numbers are much less dominant, however, against conference foes such as LSU and Texas A&M that are more similar to Notre Dame.
If you are trying to gauge whether the Irish can be successful, you have to decide whether the SEC is truly head and shoulders above the rest of the college football world and such comparisons are invalid. Six consecutive national champions produced by the SEC and Saban’s emerging dynasty are certainly grounds for a high confidence level, but anyone who has watched the Irish this season knows they cannot be discounted.
Detractors point to Notre Dame’s narrow escapes against BYU and Pittsburgh, but wins against PAC-12 champion Stanford, Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma and a talented USC team are significant by any measure. The Irish and particularly Golson improved steadily as the season progressed, and the team was particularly strong in the fourth quarter where the outcome was still in doubt.
Simply put, Notre Dame needs to hold up physically for 60 minutes. While they will probably be outgained on the ground, the Irish cannot afford to surrender more than 200 yards. Conversely, they must be patient enough to stick with their own ground game so the play action pass can be effective. Although both teams protect the football very well, the team that forces its opponent out of its comfort zone will create turnovers and emerge with the national championship trophy.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will Notre Dame be emotionally prepared to get off to a solid start in the game?
Can the Irish defenders tackle well enough to keep Lacy and Yeldon from breaking long runs?
Will McCarron hurt Notre Dame with screens and deep play action passes?
Which special teams will contribute a game-changing play?
Will the Irish score touchdowns or be forced to settle for field goals?
Can Alabama effectively neutralize Manti Te’o?
Will Golson’s mobility be a difference maker for the Irish?
Which team will have the most energy in the fourth quarter?
The underdog Irish are not likely to shy away from a physical contest after outlasting Stanford and taking the best shot every week from a respectable and diverse group of opponents. Alabama will also relish a slugfest, but their vaunted defense had a tough time containing a talented dual-threat quarterback in Johnny Manziel. If Everett Golson can be efficient and make good decisions with the ball, Notre Dame will also do its share of damage. Six weeks of preparation under Kelly’s tutelage should translate into a solid performance for the first year signal caller, but they must figure out a way into the end zone when those precious few opportunities present themselves. Alabama’s sledgehammer attack will be at full throttle, but the gritty Irish defense will make enough plays to pull out one more heart-stopping victory in this incredible year of resurrection for Notre Dame football.
NOTRE DAME 23 ALABAMA 20