By Jess Nicholas,
Jan. 3, 2012
If the Alabama-LSU matchup in the 2012 BCS Championship Game was a matchup made for 20- and 30-somethings who have grown up in the era of SEC dominance, then the 2013 BCS Championship Game is a nod to the 40-, 50- and 60-somethings who still get a certain tightness in their stomachs at the mention of the year 1973.
Alabama is going for its third crystal football in four years, but to do so, the Crimson Tide will have to get by a tough Notre Dame Fighting Irish team. It might also have to push past a few ghosts in the process.
Alabama has but one win in its history against Notre Dame, and that game – played in the middle of a regular season 20-something years ago against a bad Irish team – was cause for such momentous remembrance that Alabama LB Cornelius Bennett’s career was advanced several notches (and artist Daniel Moore’s career launched) as the result of a vicious sack of Irish QB Steve Beuerlein. For a program that prides itself on not rushing the field after wins or assigning too much importance to individual victories, most Alabama fans who were alive for that game can still tell you exactly where they were at several points in the afternoon.
This game makes the Bennett-Beuerlein game look like a box of Rice Krispies treats by comparison. This game is for all the marbles, and it’s also about flushing out some old ghosts – the ones that only seem to appear when Alabama meets Notre Dame in games where hardware is awarded afterwards.
This game figures to be a defensive battle, unless Notre Dame really is as overrated as some Alabama fans hopefully wish the Irish were. It has every chance to be as competitive and physical as any recent Alabama-LSU contest.
Both teams prefer a physical approach on offense, but Alabama’s theories are more advanced. To put it another way, Notre Dame is in this game a year or two ahead of schedule. Irish coach Brian Kelly has historically preferred a wide-open spread attack at his former stops, but he doesn’t have the skill talent or the quarterback to run it in South Bend, so Notre Dame has morphed into a power offense run mostly from a three-wide attack. In some ways, Alabama employs the same philosophy, but Alabama has more playmaking ability on the edges of its offense and under center as well. Moreover, Alabama’s offense is crafted around this strategy, whereas Notre Dame sort of arrived here out of necessity. The teams’ rankings are similar: Notre Dame comes in 29th in rushing offense, 76th in passing offense and 49th in total offense. Alabama is 19th, 81st and 39th in those same categories. The difference, though, is in scoring offense: 74th for Notre Dame versus 14th for Alabama, thanks in large part to a difference in passing efficiency (ND is 74th, while Alabama leads the nation).
Notre Dame’s Everett Golson is a quarterback who is greater than the sum of his talents. Golson isn’t particularly accurate, doesn’t have first-line arm strength and isn’t a Cam Newton-type scrambler, but he doesn’t beat his team with dumb mistakes, either. Golson was 166-of-282 (58.9%) for 2,135 yards in the regular season, with 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, meanwhile, went 191-of-286 (66.8%) for 2,669 yards, 26 touchdowns and 3 picks. Golson also carried 89 times for 305 yards (3.4 avg.) and 5 touchdowns, superb numbers considering college rushing totals factor in sack yardage. He also had several big scrambles when the chips were down. But Alabama’s McCarron also has good wheels, and while he prefers not to run, can absolutely do it when it’s necessary. Notre Dame does have a decided advantage on the bench, where Tommy Rees (34-of-59, 57.6%, 436 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) is a better option than Blake Sims (5-of-10, 50.0%, 77 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) if for no other reason than Rees has more game experience and can run the full Irish offense when he’s in the game. However, if Alabama can get to Rees, it neutralizes any edge the Irish might have in running the ball from the quarterback position. Golson has gotten maximum return on his talent and is a good leader, but McCarron has better physical skills and has been here before. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history, an incredible feat given the names Humphrey, Alexander, Ingram and Richardson are absent from the discussion. Eddie Lacy (184 carries, 1,182 yards, 6.4 avg., 16 TD) and T.J. Yeldon (154 carries, 1,000 yards, 6.5 avg., 11 TD) took over the SEC Championship Game against Georgia and both are at 100 percent health for probably the first time all year. It would take an injury to one or both to get to Kenyan Drake or Brent Calloway in this game, a blowout lead notwithstanding. Notre Dame has three backs who will likely all see time in this game. Theo Riddick is the most recognizable of the three names, but Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III actually have better per-carry statistics on the year. None of the three has cracked the 1,000-yard mark yet, and the three together have fewer touchdowns than Lacy does for Alabama alone. Golson, the quarterback, is the Irish’s fourth-leading rusher. Riddick does give Notre Dame an extra weapon in that he’s an effective receiver out of the backfield, as good or better than Yeldon is for Alabama. All three Irish backs have good size (the three average out around 6’0”, 205). Cam McDaniel adds further depth. Neither team utilizes a true fullback. Notre Dame’s unit isn’t bad, but Alabama is simply more talented and is peaking at the right time. Advantage: Alabama
Despite the fact that Notre Dame lacks a pure playmaker on the edge of the offense, the Fighting Irish have a clear edge over Alabama in terms of overall depth. For Alabama, what was a deep pool of receivers has been drained by an attack of injuries. What’s left, though, is still a solid main trio of Amari Cooper, Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood. Cooper could very well crack the 1,000-yard plateau in his true freshman year with a solid game. He has caught 53 passes for 895 yards (16.9 avg) and 9 touchdowns, and more importantly, has consistently outplayed even the most veteran defensive backs. His speed, hands and route-running ability are already at the top of the SEC charts. But Alabama is holding its breath over the topic of injuries, because Kenny Bell is most likely out for this game and none of the reserves – Marvin Shinn, Cyrus Jones, Danny Woodson Jr. or Nathan McAlister – have been able to give Alabama much thus far. Shinn will see the most time out of that group, thanks mostly to his blocking ability. Notre Dame’s leading wideout is flanker T.J. Jones, who has caught 43 passes for 559 yards (13.0 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. DaVaris Daniels has numbers approximating those of Alabama’s Jones and Norwood, although he has yet to find the endzone in 2012. Slot receiver Robby Toma is sort of a poor man’s T.J. Moe. Notre Dame is actually led by its tight end, Tyler Eifert, who has caught 44 passes for 624 yards (14.2 avg.) and 4 touchdowns. He has above-average size and speed for the position and great hands, and could present matchup problems for Alabama if the Crimson Tide stays in base defense for long. If Alabama opts for its nickel package, however, Eifert will give up the speed advantage but will have a nice size edge over either Geno Smith or Vinnie Sunseri. Troy Nicklas gives the Irish a big body off the bench. Alabama counters with Michael Williams, a better blocker than Eifert but not as good a receiver, and Brian Vogler and Kelly Johnson. Notre Dame could play as many as 12 receivers to Alabama’s five or six, but the presence of Cooper nudges this category to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Despite the fact that Notre Dame has had uneven rushing performances and a sub-average passing game, the Fighting Irish have been better than Alabama at preventing sacks. Much of that is due to Golson’s ability to move in and out of the pocket, however. Alabama has a clear size advantage over Notre Dame’s unit, which is small inside and just average outside. Braxston Cave will start at center for Notre Dame flanked by Mike Golic Jr. and Chris Watt at the guards and Zack Martin and Christian Lombard at the tackles. Alabama will counter with Barrett Jones at center, with Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at the guards and Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at the tackles. Jones, who suffered a significant foot and ankle injury against Georgia, appears to be healthy. If he can’t go for this game, redshirt freshman Ryan Kelly will have to step up. Presuming Jones is healthy, Alabama has shown more consistency in establishing the line of scrimmage, especially in the running game. The Tide’s size will come in useful against a large Notre Dame front, while Alabama could conversely find success with its bull tackle package (Jesse Williams next to Brandon Ivory in a four-man front) working against the Irish’s smaller inside players. If Jones was 100 percent, this wouldn’t be that close of a call, but the uncertainty is enough to advise caution. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams run a 3-4 scheme, although Alabama’s is more multiple in nature with its over/under packages and extensive use of nickel alignments, both in 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 form. Notre Dame is more traditional in its outlay. But both teams are successful. The Fighting Irish lead the nation in scoring defense, and rank 4th in rush defense, 13th in pass efficiency defense, 21st in raw pass defense and 6th in total defense. Alabama ranks 1st against the run and in total defense, 2nd in scoring defense, 4th in raw pass defense and 8th in efficiency defense.
Most of the national media talk this month has centered on Notre Dame’s front three, and most specifically nosetackle Louis Nix, who is listed at 325 pounds in what appears to be an understatement. But what makes Nix even more effective is that the Irish have two 300-pounders at the end slots, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt, in particular, is hard to handle for most offensive lines, and he figures to be going against D.J. Fluker for much of the night. Fluker’s struggles have come against lighter, quicker ends, however, so facing a bull like Tuitt might actually be to his favor. Nix has been effective against all in the middle, almost a Terrence Cody-like presence. There is no glaring weakness anywhere. Tuitt and Lewis-Moore have combined for 21.5 tackles for loss and 18 sacks, an incredible number for ends in a 3-4 alignment. Alabama will start Jesse Williams in the middle, with Ed Stinson and Damion Square at end. Quinton Dial, Jeoffrey Pagan and D.J. Pettway will see time at end, while Brandon Ivory will both spell Williams in the middle and work alongside him when Alabama goes big in the middle. Alabama’s ends give up plenty to Notre Dame’s in terms of size, but the offensive line Alabama will be facing isn’t as big as what the Tide usually sees in SEC play. Alabama is no slouch, but the production of Notre Dame’s front has been superb. Advantage: Notre Dame
For all the hype over Manti Te’o in the middle of Notre Dame’s linebacker corps, the fact remains he has just 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks on the year. Where he makes his bones is in pass coverage, where he’s picked off 7 passes and broken up 4 others. Essentially, he’s C.J. Mosley with more hype and, of course, the unfortunate backstory of tragedy that befell him in the last year. In reality, his teammate Prince Shembo has been just as effective, and has been a more active player behind enemy lines. If this were a comparison simply of inside linebackers, Notre Dame would probably take this category, but Alabama has a big edge on the outsides, where Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard bring more to the table than does Dan Fox and Danny Spond. Alabama counters with Mosley in the middle along with Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson, along with the aforementioned Dickson and Hubbard. Denzel Devall won’t be 100 percent for this game, but it appears he will play some at Jack linebacker. Tana Patrick should see time in certain packages as an inside linebacker, and Alabama could use either Jonathan Atchison at SLB or DE D.J. Pettway at Jack if Devall can’t go. This is about as even as matchups can get, but give the edge to Alabama simply on account of more consistency across the unit. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama has a clear edge in the statistics, but the stats have looked misleading at times this season. In reality, Alabama’s defensive backfield has vulnerabilities thanks to youth at some of the key positions (Star safety, field cornerback) that make Nick Saban’s innovative defense go. Dee Milliner isn’t one of those vulnerabilities, however, and he’ll start at corner opposite Deion Belue, with Geno Smith and John Fulton providing depth. Robert Lester and Nick Perry will start at safety, with Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix playing key roles. Smith’s emergence at the Star position of late has been a huge plus, and Alabama will need a good game from him, as well as more consistency from Lester and Perry at the safety positions. Notre Dame will start Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell at the corners, with Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley at the safety positions. Like Alabama, Notre Dame has size issues at one of the corner slots (Russell for Notre Dame, Belue for Alabama). Across the board, however, the Crimson Tide holds an athleticism advantage, probably the only place on the field where this is true at every slot. Notre Dame’s safeties have just 1 interception between them in 2012, although the corners have 6. But Notre Dame’s corners are not as active – or as accomplished – in run support as Alabama’s corners are, particularly Milliner. Both teams have quality units, but Alabama is one step better, at least. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s special teams have been erratic all year. Just when they begin to look like a strength, Alabama has a game like the SEC Championship Game where a blocked field goal, crucial penalty on a fake punt and a near-fumble of a punt return pop up. For Notre Dame, Kyle Brindza has done a nice job filling in at kicker for the injured Nick Tausch, who is most likely still unavailable for this game. Brindza’s accuracy is sketchy beyond about 35 yards, however. His leg strength is not a problem, as evidenced by 25 touchbacks on kickoffs. Alabama counters with Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster; Shelley is probably a better kicker close-in than Brindza, but Brindza is a better long kicker than Foster. Alabama holds the edge at punter, where Cody Mandell outranks Ben Turk. Statistically, Alabama holds clear edges over Notre Dame in the return game; the Tide ranks 40th in punt returns and 12th in kickoff returns, while Notre Dame ranks 115th and 83rd in those areas. The problem with picking Alabama is that every time we pick Alabama here, the Tide wets the bed in some way. Consistency is something that cannot ever be overrated. Advantage: Notre Dame
Alabama leads in six categories, Notre Dame in two, but there is no place on the board other than perhaps the defensive backfield where Alabama has a clear edge. To make matters tougher to predict, both teams’ DL win the matchup with the other team’s OL, although Alabama’s offensive line suffers from the uncertainty of Barrett Jones’ health concerns and if he were at 100 percent, it could be a push there.
But what would someone expect? This is a matchup of the two top teams in the country. A close game should be expected. While there are plenty of reasons to suspect Notre Dame is a product of good fortune, the truth is this is a team of good athletes, coached well by a coach who has won national championships at lower levels. Good coaching translates level to level, despite the tendency to believe only Division-IA records are relevant.
Where this game breaks for Alabama comes in an inspection of Notre Dame’s opposition. The Fighting Irish beat a middling Purdue team 20-17. They beat Michigan 13-6, a BYU team, 17-14, that would be 6-6 at best in the SEC, and went to overtime to dispatch with a just-OK Pittsburgh squad. The Irish’s biggest win of the year, in terms of what the opponent was supposed to be, was a 22-13 victory over a listless USC squad playing a backup quarterback.
By contrast, Alabama lost to a dangerous Texas A&M team quarterbacked by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama was only challenged twice otherwise, beating LSU in the last minute and holding off Georgia late in the SEC Championship Game. There is no comparison between LSU/Georgia and Purdue/BYU.
Still, history waves from the corner again, those old 1973 ghosts reminding us that when Notre Dame plays Alabama, strange things can happen. There are also the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, like the fact that PAC-12 officials will be calling this game, and the PAC-12 is known for calling holding much tighter than it’s called in the SEC. Notre Dame has experience with PAC-12 officials this year; Alabama does not.
Notre Dame 13