Before we get into a review of Notre Dame’s season-as-whole, we’ll address the obvious, meaning the two games against Clemson that Notre Dame split: Yes, Notre Dame played the hands-down No. 2 team in the country and beat them once. But if the rest of the season is any indication, no one really knows if the Fighting Irish are really good or not.
Notre Dame played an ACC schedule in 2020 and did a good job punching a time card. Its rematch with Clemson, held in the ACC Championship Game and when Clemson again had the services of star QB Trevor Lawrence, who missed the first matchup with Covid-related restrictions, ended up being the only blemish on the Irish’s record. But what a blemish it was.
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Defensively, Notre Dame has a similar profile to Alabama: decent enough numbers, gives up a lot of yards through the air, but is efficient and keeps the offense in games. Offensively, the Irish run the ball well, throw the ball adequately, and by virtue of having a smart quarterback that can do either thing, are capable of being one of those teams that could get hot and cause Alabama a lot of trouble.
But Notre Dame is also this: The team that beat a terrible Duke team 27-13; the team that beat 4-7 Louisville by a score of 12-7; the team that allowed 3-7 and barely-competitive Georgia Tech to slap-fight the Irish to a final of just 31-13.
Because of the lack of inter-conference games this year due to Covid, of course, it could just be that the ACC was that much more competitive than the SEC. As unlikely as that sounds, this game will ultimately tell the tale.
Brian Kelly will one day be remembered for helping to usher in a more dynamic brand of spread-based, pro-style offense. A lot of what Alabama is doing now under Steve Sarkisian hearkens back to concepts that were originally being rolled out in multiple places simultaneously, including Central Michigan under Kelly’s tutelage. Despite being a defensive coach by trade, Kelly embraced more dynamic offensive styles warmly, including via a brief partnership with Butch Jones, who was on Kelly’s 2004 staff.
Notre Dame ranks 22nd in total offense and 19th in rushing offense this year, along with a ranking of 57th in passing offense. Kelly’s use of tight ends in his offenses is something Alabama will need to watch for, especially coming off the heels of having Florida’s Kyle Pitts torch the Crimson Tide’s defense. Alabama’s offense is similar in build to Notre Dame’s, but is more dynamic thanks to better playmakers on the edge and in the backfield. Alabama leads the nation in passing efficiency, is 5th in passing offense and total offense and is 44th in rushing offense.
Notre Dame quarterbacks typically get 10 bonus points to the Heisman Trophy race at the beginning of the season just on general principle. But Ian Book rightly earned some of the attention he received. Book’s final stat line pales in comparison to that of Alabama’s Mac Jones, but he’s a true dual-threat quarterback who rushed for more than 4 yards per carry, a figure that includes yardage lost to sacks. He’s plenty efficient, and threw just 2 interceptions over 314 attempts, so don’t expect Alabama to pressure him into turnovers.
Jones will likely cross the 4,000-yard mark in this game, a fantastical achievement given it’s just his 12th game of the season. He’s thrown 32 touchdown passes, more than double Book’s total of 15. Alabama also has an edge among backups, as Bryce Young has significantly more experience than either Brendon Clark or Drew Pyne. Alabama could have issues with Book if it cannot contain him in the running game, but if the game comes down to who is the better passer, Alabama takes it clearly. Advantage: Alabama
The best single running back on either team is absolutely Najee Harris of Alabama, but Notre Dame has far better depth and this category will be a hard pull for the Tide. Kyren Williams has broken the 1,000-yard mark (1,061) for the season, scoring 12 touchdowns along the way, and is also a force in the passing game. Backups Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister have combined for nearly another 800 yards and have 9 more scores on the ground.
Alabama’s Harris is over 1,200 yards for the season and is coming off his best game of the year against Florida, but the backup situation behind him isn’t quite as strong as what Notre Dame has to offer. Brian Robinson Jr. has been mostly solid, but lacks Harris’ raw strength and his unique knack for turning 2-yard gains into 5- and 6-yard plunges. Jace McClellan, who has settled into the third-RB role, has incredible potential but isn’t likely to see any carries unless the game gets out of hand.
With Robinson’s role declining as Harris has gotten rolling, the real question is whether Harris can remain fresh for the duration of his expected workload, while Notre Dame is more likely to have fresher legs in the game at all times. Again, taking nothing away from Harris – he’s probably the best running back in the country right now – this is a case where depth is the primary factor in moving the needle. Advantage: Notre Dame
Notre Dame has the hands-down advantage at tight end, but Alabama is far more dangerous on the outside, even without Jaylen Waddle. Notre Dame’s tight end group of blockers Brock Wright and George Takacs and receivers Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble are probably one of the three or four best tight end groups in the country.
What Notre Dame lacks is a true outside threat to pressure the secondary. Javon McKinley is a quality wideout and would be a starter for Alabama (but only because Waddle is out), but the Fighting Irish have only two other significant contributors at receiver (Ben Skowronek and Avery Davis) and neither one scares opponents. Alabama can match up either of its corners one-on-one with McKinley and come out no worse than 50/50, allowing it to bring help down to either cover the tight ends or provide extra beef against the running game.
When Alabama has the ball, it will rely on the receiver trio of DeVonta Smith, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden, with Xavier Williams and Javon Baker backing them up. Smith is likely on the verge of finishing no worse than second in the Heisman Trophy race and should be a unanimous Biletnikoff Award winner. Metchie is about on par with McKinley.
At tight end, Miller Forristall, Jahleel Billingsley and Kendall Randolph will split most of the work, with Carl Tucker and Major Tennison the primary backups. Randolph is a blocker only, but Forristall has developed into a good dual-use tight end, while Billingsley will run routes at receiver and may also return kickoffs in addition to working primarily as an H-back. There’s enough there between Billingsley and Forristall to trade punches long enough for the Tide’s overwhelming edge at the outside receiver spots to come through. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama will be without C Landon Dickerson for this game, and his loss is almost as significant as Waddle’s was earlier in the year, perhaps even more so if Alabama’s backups can’t step up. The Tide won’t reshuffle the rest of the line, meaning Emil Ekiyor Jr. will remain at guard opposite Deonte Brown, while Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal start at tackle.
For now, it looks like senior swingman Chris Owens will get the start in the middle for Dickerson, but he has struggled at center in each of the last two seasons, including late against Florida last week once Dickerson went out. If he absolutely cannot handle the assignment, Alabama will have to rely on a pair of talented but inexperienced youngsters, Darrian Dalcourt or Seth McLaughlin. Both have played this year, and played well, but they have virtually no experience making line calls during game situations. Notre Dame’s offensive line, however, has had its own troubles.
The Fighting Irish ranks 62nd in sacks allowed and 50th in tackles for loss allowed despite not exactly playing a Murderer’s Row schedule. As it stands now, sophomore Zeke Correll starts at center, and he’s surrounded by seniors – guards Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks, and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey. Even Correll’s backup is a senior, Josh Lugg. This lineup may not be what actually hits the field, however, as Correll has played in only two games this season and didn’t play in the last two. Kraemer has started 9 games; Dillan Gibbons has started one at guard. Lugg has started three.
Notre Dame will also be without one of its original 2020 starters in this game, too, as Jarrett Patterson was lost for the season with a foot injury in mid-November. Translation: Alabama may have an issue at center, but Notre Dame has issues all over, and has yet to figure out how to replace Patterson. Advantage: Alabama
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