The Tide Looks Like a Tsunami

Notre Dame (10-1) will face top ranked Alabama (11-0) in the first national playoff semifinal on Friday. The venue will retain its original billing as the Rose Bowl, but due to ongoing COVID restrictions in California the teams will play in Arlington, Texas. The Fighting Irish have reached the Final Four in two of the past three seasons, and are looking to take the next step in the process of advancing the program. The challenge is formidable, however, as they will have to slay one of the game’s perennial giants. ESPN will televise the contest beginning at 4:00 PM Eastern time.

An alternate viewing option is available on the ACC Network. For fans who have access to ACCN, the ESPN game telecast will be paired with Notre Dame’s radio network featuring announcers Paul Burmeister, Ryan Harris and Jack Nolan. This simulcast also begins at 4:00 PM EST. The ACCN will offer extensive pregame coverage beginning at 2:00 PM.

Coach Nick Saban has built an impressive roster with elite size, speed, skill and depth. Known as an architect of outstanding defenses, Saban has adapted to the evolution within the sport as well as rule changes that favor the offense. This year’s edition of the Crimson Tide is an offensive juggernaut. Led by quarterback Mac Jones and a massive offensive line, Alabama has averaged 50 points and 544 yards per outing. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith was named the Associated Press National Player of the Year and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Offensive Player of the Year, while running back Najee Harris is the SEC’s leading rusher.

DeVonta Smith is the AP Player of the Year

Coach Brian Kelly guided Notre Dame into the playoffs by winning ten games for the fourth consecutive season. Although the Irish cannot match the level of talent that Alabama and Clemson bring to the table, no other school provided a compelling argument that they are more deserving to participate in this tournament. Meanwhile, Saban just recorded his 13th straight ten-win season in Tuscaloosa and has won five national titles at the school.

Irish Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea agreed to continue his duties through the playoffs. The popular Nashville native will leave shortly to become the head coach at Vanderbilt. This week’s challenge of devising a game plan to stem the relentless Tide is certainly a baptism of fire for his upcoming career in the SEC.

Each team has lost its starting center and a valuable playmaker at wide receiver to season ending injury. Jarrett Patterson anchored the Irish offensive line until he went down late in the season. Wide receiver Kevin Austin never really got going this year after breaking his foot in fall camp, only to immediately suffer a recurrence upon his return to the lineup. Alabama lost center Landon Dickerson in the conference championship game against Florida, while speedy wideout Jaylen Waddle broke his ankle in early October. Waddle is reportedly nearing a return to action but is not expected to play in this game.

In keeping with tradition, the coaches are spouting the usual cliches to the media. In speaking about the Irish offensive line, Saban remarked, “I think these guys are really, really good. 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. These guys do a really good job. They don’t make very many mistakes, I can tell you that.”

Kelly voiced similar musings about Alabama’s defense. “Both corners are outstanding. Fundamentally sound in every area. They have all the answers in terms of what they want to do. And they do it very, very well. It’s not an overstatement to say that they’re well-coached. I know it sounds like coachspeak, but they’re well-coached in all areas, and what they do they do extremely well with really good football players.”

NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. ALABAMA’S DEFENSE

The fact that jumped out at me immediately about the Alabama defense is they have only one senior starter – middle linebacker Dylan Moses. The rest of the 3-4-4 alignment is comprised of five juniors, four sophomores and a freshman. Another freshman, Malachi Moore, is rotated in as a fifth defensive back on passing downs.

CB Patrick Surtain II can cover like a blanket

Outside linebackers Chris Allen and Will Anderson are productive pass rushers, while Moses and Christian Harris stuff the running game from their inside positions. Up front, end Christian Barmore is the most disruptive player. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, leads the secondary. He is joined by fellow corner Josh Jobe. Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle are an excellent pair of safeties.

If the Tide follows the successful plan employed by Clemson, they will try to pressure quarterback Ian Book up the middle and use Allen and Anderson as pincers to cut off his escape routes. The matchup between Notre Dame’s outside receivers and Alabama’s cornerbacks favors Surtain and Jobe. Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek are not especially fast and will have trouble getting separation. If Book elects to pull the ball down and look to scramble, it probably won’t end well.

The Irish are going to have to employ the tight ends in the passing game and focus on running the ball successfully. The lack of a deep threat will allow Saban to bring extra bodies into the box. Book could use some help from the likes of Braden Lenzy, Avery Davis or Lawrence Keys to help stretch the field and give him more options. This is a long shot because these players have done little thus far in the season except for Davis’ heroics in the first matchup with Clemson.

ALABAMA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE

Quarterback Mac Jones is both the director and the beneficiary of the offensive talent Saban has assembled. With little disruption in the pocket, Jones has been able to complete 76% of his passes for 340 yards per game. These are not short dink and dunk throws, either.  Jones averages a phenomenal 15 yards per completion. The team has also converted on 59% of its third down chances. Meanwhile, Harris has rumbled for 1262 yards this season and has rushed for 24 touchdowns. He is also the team’s third leading receiver.

Najee Harris is the SEC’s best running back

As impressive as Alabama’s statistics are, the group up front makes it all possible. Tackles Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal are outstanding bookends while guards Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor are consummate road graders. Chris Owens seamlessly plugged into the lineup when all-SEC center Dickerson went down. Together with tight end Miller Forristal, this imposing group of six blockers tips the scales at an even one ton. When the Tide gets serious about picking up short yardage, they bring in another tight end to help lead the way. That person would be 298-pound Kendall Randolph.

If there is any consolation for the Irish in having to face such a powerful offense, it’s that Alabama is not currently at its best. Waddle was as dangerous a playmaker as Smith before he went down with a broken ankle. The two of them in the lineup together would frighten half the teams in the NFL. Also, Jones is not a threat to run the ball from the quarterback position. Imagine a player like Trevor Lawrence running the show behind this offensive line.

Coach Lea must judiciously deploy his defensive pieces to slow down the Tide. Not having to worry about a running quarterback should help, but only a little in this case. Look for Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to shadow Harris when he carries the ball or becomes a pass receiver. If Lea decides to double-cover Smith, the rest of his troops need to hold up in their one-on-one matchups with other receivers such as John Metchie, Slade Bolden, and Forristal. All have been targeted more frequently since Waddle’s injury in October. Lea’s players believe he has devised a plan that gives them a chance to win. The key ingredient is to win battles along the line of scrimmage, and that will be the toughest part.

SPECIAL TEAMS

By now, you are tired of reading how great Alabama is. Unfortunately, there’s more to tell. Kicker Will Reichard has not missed a field goal (12-12) or extra point (73-73) this season. Punter Charlie Scott is so lightly used that he hides from Saban in the sideline medical tent and plays video games to stay awake. Okay, I made that up.

Forrest Gump has moved on, but Alabama’s STs are still very good

The Tide have historically enjoyed excellent results in the return game under Saban, and this year is no different. His cover teams are also what you would expect – fast and furious. Smith took over the punt return duties from Waddle earlier this season. Obviously, there was no drop in production. Smith has one touchdown and sports a 25-yard average.

SUMMARY

On offense, Notre Dame cannot afford unproductive possessions. Strong north-south running and short, quick passes could work early, but the Tide will adjust accordingly. The Irish will have their work cut out for them unless other lightly used but swifter wide receivers can emerge to open up more of the field. In any event, Notre Dame must keep Alabama’s blitzkrieg on the sideline while they score seven points instead of three at every opportunity. It still may not be enough.

LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is Notre Dame’s best defender

Defensively, Notre Dame will deploy all available bodies up front against the formidable Alabama line by rotating in fresh troops for maximum effort. One question is whether Owusu-Koramoah can neutralize Harris. Another is whether the secondary can limit Smith’s receiving yards without exposing itself to big plays by others. Defending Alabama’s speed is a tall order for Notre Dame’s back seven. They don’t match up well individually and can’t rely on the pass rush to get home against that huge offensive front. Their best bet may be to eliminate long scoring plays and make Alabama earn every yard.

Ade Ogundeji leads the Irish pass rush

The Tide have a loaded roster and will continue to be a playoff contender for the foreseeable future. The offense will simply reload after several top players elect to enter the NFL draft, and the defense will be even better next year. Note that two freshmen lead the team in sacks (Anderson) and interceptions (Moore).

Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:

  • Can the Irish generate meaningful yardage on the ground?
  • Will Notre Dame’s faster but little-used receivers give the offense a boost?        
  • Can the Irish pass rush force Jones out of his comfort zone?
  • Will Book find room to extend plays if his receivers are initially covered?
  • Can the Irish avoid turnovers and special teams breakdowns that lead to cheap points?
  • Which defense will be able to get off the field on third down?
  • Can Notre Dame convert scoring chances into touchdowns rather than field goals?
  • Is there a vaccine for losing big games?

PREDICTION

There is a reason the path to victory I described in the Summary sounds like wishful thinking. No team has been able to slow down the Tide over four quarters. Opponents with prolific passing games such as Florida and Mississippi have nearly matched their offensive production, but the Irish attack is far less explosive. What makes the task even more improbable is the Irish would have to win the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball to have a legitimate chance. Although they have enough talent to have some success, Alabama’s stable of linemen is bigger and deeper. If anyone would like to believe that the Tide could look past Notre Dame and become vulnerable to an upset, they underestimate Saban and his relentless attention to detail. I’m not sure even the Irish coaches believe they can win, but I do know they’d like to keep the score within a respectable range. That is probably the best outcome Irish fans can hope for.

ALABAMA 42 NOTRE DAME 17 

Tell John what you think in the Comments section below

36 thoughts on “The Tide Looks Like a Tsunami

  1. Timothy Miller says:

    I was a little more optimistic at 41-24. My expectations are low – let’s hope they’re low enough that the team can meet them. Perhaps with some turnovers we can keep it closer. After all, Alabama does have to play the game.

    We’re not the only team in CFP history to get blown out in a semi. Albama and Clemson are just a a different level.

  2. JVAN, You’re spot-on.. But I think it will be worse… Irish way in over-their-heads with the
    Tide..

    Get ready for a bunch of three and outs from the Irish.. Maybe a touchdown and field goal
    at best.. Bama D will dominate our OLINE…

    I don’t believe the Irish have any chance of keeping this under a four touchdown game.. I’m sorry but they just don’t have the talent to match up with the 5 or 6 first rounders of the Tide!!

    BAMA 48
    ND 13

  3. This is a realistic appraisal of the teams.Maybe with a better head coach and some on the offensive staff I would hold out more hope. The track record for Brian Kelly leaves me with too many doubts about strategy, tactics and, should it become a close game ( I’m really delusional), clock management. Honesty causes me to suspect The Lads can make it a game for one or maybe one and a half quarters. I will watch to the end and record the game as well for more suffering. I wish Lou or the ghosts of Rock or Frank Leahy could help but alas we have our present leadershit. We have had a fine season and I[m proud of The Lads!

  4. Would it have been better for the Irish to have NOT been picked for the playoff and therefore have a better chance to win a New Year’s Six bowl game against, say, Florida, Cincinnati or Texas A&M?. I, too, think ND will get blown out, but not because the Irish aren’t necessarily that good but because Alabama and Clemson are so far ahead of everyone else in college football. I mean, Tua graduated and ‘Bama was supposed to fall off. Well, Mack Jones proved to be just as a good as Tua. And Trevor Lawrence’s backup through for nearly 400 yards in South Bend and I think he was the top recruit in the country last year. ‘Bama and Clemson stockpile talent. They have the best three at every position, especially the skill positions. It is killing the sport. I don’t see things changing anytime soon.

    • I beg to differ. North Carolina’s offense is actually ranked one spot higher than Alabama’s with the same talented but immobile Quarterback and extremely talented running backs. Our defense handled them quite well on the road. I believe the SEC maybe overrated somewhat as witnessed by Oklahoma pounding Florida for over 600 yards. Oklahoma’s offense is ranked 18th. Our offense is ranked 20th. Florida scored at will against Alabama but was only able to put up 20 against the Sooners.
      Emotions play a huge roll in college football. The last two lopsided loses we suffered against Clemson we we’re coming of long winning streaks, maybe too confident, no chip on our shoulder. In the win this year against Clemson we came out on fire because of the beat down we suffered by them in the previous meeting. This game we are coming off another embarrassing loss. Because of this and the fact that absolutely no one is giving us a chance will give us the edge emotionally. If you actually analyze the stats and consider the emotional factor I believe the game will be much closer than anyone thinks.

  5. Please coach this game to win! For once in these games, can he understand that because the boys are outmanned you need to coach differently. That means, have a series of plays no one has seen yet. Play some of the speedier receivers just to show a threat. Fake a punt, fake a FG, and go for it on 4th and manageable even on the wrong side of the field. Losing by 20 or 40 doesn’t make a damn difference so play to shock the world and not like a coach looking to take bows for losing by 17.

    If they do all of this, they’ll probably still lose but every ND fan will be able to hold their head high. Alabama 41-31

  6. James David Tribble says:

    This is not a Notre Dame problem, it is a college football problem similar to that which existed when only 16-28 teams got into the NCAA MBB tourney: the talent is concentrated into a few programs which have the optimal chance to get into the tournament. Think UCLA, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas representing their leagues virtually every season.

    The NCAA Men’s BB tournament is far from ideal with too much power wielded by the major conferences; however, there is some fluidity in the flow of talent among the top teams with the one and done rule and the number of teams making the field. And you only need 7 players to be competitive nationally. Football, in contrast, needs 60+ on a squad who can play and there just are not that many elite players in the nation. So, in my mind, the obvious way to dilute the talent of Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State is to first have a one or two and done rule and expand the field. My personal preference is 16 teams with the country divided into four geographic regions (SW, NW, NE, SE) with nominally 30 teams per region. The top four teams of each region make the field: this alone will disperse talent across the nation. The top two seeds get home games in the first round (Say NE vs SW and NW vs SE in one year and rotating year by year) and then the top two remaining seeds in the regional pairings get home games in next round.
    Southern teams forced to go play in a downpour in Oregon or a blizzard at South Bend or Penn State for example.
    Losers are eligible for regular bowl games and final four play as now. If the FCS can run a 24 team playoff w/o issues, it seems that FBS can manage an equitable 16 team format.

  7. Hi John- thank you for a very well researched and well-written review- as always.

    Might you have in mind a score that, even though it’s a loss, is respectable for the Irish, given all the realities of this game? Thanks in advance for any thoughts you want to share.

    jtw

    • My predicted score was actually worse than the 42-17 posted with the article. I didn’t think many of my readers could handle it, so I made it slightly better than the 42-14 beating that Alabama gave us in the 2012 BCS championship game. We can call this progress!

      I’ll add that both teams are better than their 2012 versions, but a definite talent gap still exists. Alabama’s offense is also much more explosive today. If they had Jaylen Waddle on Friday they would probably hang 60 on us.

  8. Unless my COVID-19 test comes back positive, my flight with Mrs. Subalumt to Maui lands at 1/2 time so I’ll only be watching 1/2 of the debacle. That Bama O-Line is HUGE. Sadly I’m having flashbacks to the 2012 Championship game.

    Yet, all is not lost. We are flying home on Championship Monday so likely won’t see that game either. My track record of the Irish ☘️ winning when I am not watching their games is excellent…..so the Lads have that going for them.

  9. It’s all in the head. How did our 1980 men’s hockey team beat the Russians? John would have predicted Soviets 9- USA 1. As would I. Especially after the Russians beat the crap out of the Americans at Madison SQ Garden like 10-1 a week or two before the Olympics.
    Can BK deliver a Herbie Brooks motivational speech? Especially over these last two weeks, getting it into their heads?
    We’ll find out in 48 hours….

  10. Thomas P. Hawkins says:

    In the fall of 1952 a great Oklahoma team came to South Bend to smash a young ND team. Oklahoma had a heisman trophy back in Billy Vessals and super talent in ol line and d line. Around noon on game day the campus was loaded with guys wearing cowboy hats telling everyone that ND was going to get their ass kicked. But ND guys like Johnny Lattner, Dan Shannon, Sam Palombo, Tom Carey, Frank Varicahone, , etc. were coached by the great Frank Leahy. And that great coach said we are going to play physical Notre Dame football. So on there way back home every bone in their body will ache. Notre Dame won the game, and they won it because they had pride, determination, guts and a super love for Notre Dame.

    • Spot on summary Vannie. ND is better than they were in ‘12, but so is Bama. Over the last 5 recruiting cycles ND average class ranking is 13.8, Bama’s is 2.6, obviously that is a big talent gap. For the record Ohio St is 6.0, Clemson 6.6.

      The Irish face a huge challenge in every aspect of this game, Still, I’ll watch and root for hard for them, it might take a miracle to pull it off, but I choose to believe once more. Proud of this team of young men! Go Irish.

  11. One other thing, in1957 , the Irish travelled to Norman OK to take on the Sooners. OK had won 47 straight , Irish were 19 point dogs., having lost 2 straight to Mich St and Navy by a combined score of 52-14.

    It can happen, it’s why they play the games. First you must BELIEVE. GO IRISH!!

    Final ND 7 Sooners 0.

  12. ND couldn’t put pressure on Trevor Lawrence so it’s doubtful they will be able to get pressure on Mac Jones. Alabama has too many weapons on offense and with Clark Lea one foot out the door I doubt he’s heart and mind will be in this game.

    Clemson made ND’s offense one dimensional and I see no reason why Alabama can’t do the same thing.

    I think we’re looking at 56-24 Alabama with 10 of those points coming in 4th quarter garbage time against Alabama’s third string unit.

  13. Vannie,

    Thank you for the write up. Happy anniversary
    and happy new year.
    Odds are ugh but looking forward to it anyway.
    Go Irish!

  14. “I am the Word.”
    Or “I am Book.”
    Or “Ian Book.”

    Who shallst part “the Red Sea, also known as “the Crimson Tide.”

    And lead us … to the Promised Land.

    Glory.

    Our Lady’s Lads: 38
    Egyptians: Drowned

    Stone.

  15. Westfield Domer says:

    While I believe ND is a legitimate top 5 team this season, a now healthy Clemson team and Saban’s Crimson Tide are clearly way ahead of everyone else, and to me there’s no shame in losing to either of them. To win the national title, the Irish would have to beat both of them in consecutive games, and I don’t believe any college team in history could do that.

  16. Would be shocked if Bama does not cover spread. Once again in the big spot, big game Kelly will come up short. Have we heard this story before? Bama 48-17.

  17. Why did I even bother watching? Brian Kelly is certainly the best post-Holtz era coach, but this is as good as it gets with him. ND has been good under Kelly, but not great. I suppose I would take that over mediocre, but that’s always short of what ND strives to be. Would you rather be good and constantly on the fringe, or a faltering program? As long as I rooted for ND football, I always preferred championship caliber vs. just good. It’s just so sad to see that this is the trade-off.

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