Notre Dame’s season was defined by goal-line stands against Stanford and USC. In the BCS championship game on Monday, Notre Dame, the team with the toughest red zone defense, will face off against a powerful Alabama offense that has scored touchdowns on 72% of its possessions inside the 20-yard line.
The game combines history and the potential for Alabama, head coach Nick Saban, and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) to establish legacies. Alabama is going for back-to-back titles, its third title in four years, and the program’s 15th overall. The SEC is going for its seventh-straight national championship and the conference’s ninth in the BCS era. No other conference has two BCS titles. And all the other conferences have six BCS titles combined. Notre Dame is attempting to return to college football glory. Notre Dame and Alabama have the most national championships in the poll era.
Alabama and Notre Dame have the country’s two best defenses, but Alabama’s offense is more potent than Notre Dame’s, which has not even scored touchdowns on half of its possessions inside the 20-yard line. In addition, Alabama’s defense will be the toughest the Notre Dame offense has faced (Stanford and BYU were stout defenses that stymied Notre Dame earlier in the season). Meanwhile, Alabama has faced defenses — like LSU’s and Georgia’s — that are as physical — if not more so — than Notre Dame’s.
1. Brian Kelly’s offense versus Nick Saban’s defensive schemes
Saban’s teams are always well prepared, and that is why Bama, under Saban, has performed strongly in games to start the season and in bowl games at the end of the season. Saban, along with his defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, is known as a defensive mastermind who can come up with plans to stop the most explosive of offenses if given a month to prepare. On the other hand, Kelly is a brilliant play-caller and, likewise, can install plays into the offense to confuse and outwit the best defenses when given more than two weeks to prepare. This will be a classic cat-and-mouse battle.
2. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson versus Alabama defense
Alabama’s defense, because of its speed, can over-pursue quarterbacks and leave its assignments on defense. The Crimson Tide’s secondary has also been vulnerable, especially on third down. Golson, with his elusiveness and arm, is the type of quarterback that has given Alabama defenders fits and can keep the Alabama defense on the field by turning broken third-down plays into first downs. Such plays demoralize defenses and make them feel more tired. If Golson scrambles, causing Alabama defenders to “lose contain,” he can run for first downs or find receivers downfield on broken plays for huge gains.
3. Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier
Alabama has a dynamic running back tandem in Eddie Lacy and true freshman T.J. Yeldon (Alabama lost fullback Jalston Fowler to a season-ending injury and not having the battering ram may hurt them against Notre Dame’s stout front seven).
While Lacy is the thunder to Yeldon’s lightning, Yeldon is a better runner in goal-line situations while Lacy, especially with his patented spin moves, has often been a more dynamic runner between the 20 yard lines. Sometimes, Lacy or Yeldon will have four or five consecutive power rushes and be left in the game when it may be better to bring in the fresher back for a down. Look to see if Alabama rotates their running backs more frequently, even on the same series.
Alabama’s pass protection has been suspect at times throughout the season.
Yet, sometimes, Nussmeier tries to get creative with some spread offense and west coast offense formations when all he has to do is keep it simple, stupid and just run from the power eye formation. Alabama running backs have averaged 4.2 yards a carry before even being hit. Remarkably, Alabama running backs have “made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched on 35.1 percent of their designed runs.”
Even if Notre Dame stuffs the box and frustrates the Crimson Tide rushing attack early, Nussmeier would be better off if he stuck with the running game. When Alabama has not, like against Texas A&M, LSU, and Georgia, they have gotten themselves in trouble and the offense has sputtered.
4. Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix and Alabama center Barrett Jones, who is recovering from a foot injury,
Nix and Jones, who is recovering from a foot injury, will battle in the trenches and may be determine which side wins between the Notre Dame front seven versus Alabama’s running game.
5. Linebackers Manti Te’o and C.J. Mosley
Te’o has been known for his playmaking ability as a linebacker, with 7 interceptions this season. Mosley has a knack for making big plays for Alabama on defensive.
6. Alabama play-action to Amari Cooper
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron has thrown 11 touchdown passes off play-action this season. If Alabama’s running game is successful, look for McCarron to go deep to freshman standout wide receiver Cooper, who may be more athletic than anyone in the Notre Dame secondary.
7. Alabama on First Down
When Alabama does well, they run the ball successfully on first down. Alabama has often struggled this year when they have tried to throw short, slant passes or screen passes on first down only to find themselves in second-and-long situations.
8. Distractions — or lack thereof
A lack of focus. Already, Alabama’s team leaders have had to call a players-only meeting because they felt the team was lacking focus. Two freshman were sent home for violating team rules in South Beach. If the Crimson Tide players enjoyed South Beach a bit too much this past week, it could show on the field on game day.
9. Notre Dame Wild Cards: Golson and tight end Tyler Eifert
Golson has matured tremendously, especially after the Oklahoma game, when Notre Dame defeated the Sooners in Norman. But he has not faced a defense as stout, confusing and sophisticated as Alabama’s. If Golson panics, like he did earlier in the year, and wildly throws jump-balls to Eifert, Eifert will have to bail him out. On the other hand, if Golson can figure break down the Alabama defense, he may hit Eifert on more conventional passes. Eifert, the tight end who often lines up as a receiver, is the big-bodied pass threat that has often given Alabama’s secondary fits.
10. Alabama Wild Cards: Punt returner Christian Jones and cornerback Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Alabama punt returner Christian Jones is sometimes like the streaky three-point shooter, to mix metaphors, who can always keep his team — and the other team — in the game. He can break punt returns for touchdowns but can just as well make risky plays and fumble and botch punt returns. On defense, Alabama freshman cornerback Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can make huge plays, but he often gambles and could get burned, especially on some broken plays, which Golson and Notre Dame are more than capable of.