#1 Notre Dame (12-0 Independent) vs. #2 Alabama (12-1, 8-1 SEC)

Monday, January 7th, 8:30 EST, ESPN Television

It all comes down to this: The Fightin’ Irish attempting to “wake up the echoes” from the coma they have been in for nearly twenty years against Nick Saban and his SEC juggernaut, the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. Historically this is a match-up for the ages. Two of the nations all-time premier programs, a north versus south pride war for all the marbles.

History: Given the recent history of the SEC some would consider this a surprise, but coming into the championship game Notre Dame holds a 5-1 all-time record vs the Crimson Tide in head to head match-ups. Perhaps the surprise is lessened when it is revealed that these two have not met on the gridiron since 1987, a 37-6 blowout by the Irish in South Bend. The only win in the series for the Tide came a year earlier in 1986, a 28-10 win that was played in Birmingham, Alabama.

This isn’t the first time they have met in a bowl game. Notre Dame edged the Tide 24-23 in the 1973 Sugar Bowl and beat them in the 1975 Orange Bowl 13-11.

As far as championship games pitting the titans of a sport against one another, Notre Dame vs Alabama is hard to beat. The Irish are third on the all-time wins list while the Tide come in at number seven. Alabama has 14 national championships, Notre Dame with 11, however they are tied at 9 a piece if you only count the “poll era” post 1936 to present day. Love them or hate them, they are titans of the sport.

The Irish: Notre Dame comes into the game led by their defense. Head coach Brian Kelly’s defense is averaging surrendering a national best 10.33 points per game. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o is the heart and soul not only of the Irish defense but of the entire team. As Te’o goes, so go the Irish.

Offensively, Notre Dame isn’t awful but they have certainly seen better seasons statistically. Quarterback Everett Golson had a solid season utilizing both his arm and legs, however it never seemed like he nor the Irish offense was able to maximize its potential.

After what many considered a breakout of sorts for the Notre Dame offense after walloping Wake Forest 38-0, tight end Tyler Eifert stated “We felt like every time we came in on Sunday and Monday and had our meetings, we were saying the same things: ‘A lot of missed opportunities, we’re really close, let’s put it together this week, let’s put it together now this week.’”

The question then becomes: Will the layoff between their final game (November 24th vs Southern California) actually be of benefit to the Irish and allow them time to really get their offense to gel?

Another huge factor that cannot be downplayed will be emotion. This is Notre Dame’s first trip to the BCS championship and the BCS in general since the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Should Alabama make a big play early, the Irish have got to brush it aside and keep playing their game. They also can’t come in too high, they need to stay grounded while embracing the moment. Brian Kelly has the task of breaking down the SEC and the Alabama myth before they even walk into the stadium.

The Crimson Tide:Coming into the 2012 season it was justifiable to expect at least some temporary regression from Alabama’s incredible defense of 2011. Statistically it has not been the case. We’ve all heard how great the Irish defense is, but Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide actually come into this game statistically better as they rank first in total defense and against the run, second in scoring D and sixth vs. the pass.They also are second in points allowed, averaging giving up 10.69 per game, nipping at the heels of the Irish defense.

Where the Tide has shown chinks in the armor has been when they are confronted with an offense going at a fast pace. It limits their ability to utilize their depth and create match-up problems in personnel against the opposing offense. The game plan to run a spread, no huddle attack not only helped Texas A&M pull off a shocking win in Tuscaloosa, it gave Johnny Manziel the Heisman trophy over the (in my opinion) much more deserving Manti Te’o of the Irish. Can the Irish show up as a well oiled machine and keep the pace fast limiting Bama’s substitution ability? You can bet that Nick Saban will be game-planning for them to attempt just that.

The Alabama offense is steady. AJ McCarron is your typical game manager and TJ Yeldon and Eddie Lacy bring the thunder from the backfield on the ground and in the flats with McCarron’s arm. They’ll overwhelm you if you’re not prepared, but on most occasions they simply do what it takes to get the job done. The Tide offensive line remains one of the best blocking units in the country.

2 Big Keys: The biggest factor in this game will be up front on both sides of the ball. How well does the Irish defensive line hold up against the Bama front 5 and can the Bama defensive line hold their ground with the Irish front 5. Of the two, the biggest test will be the Irish defensive line plugging the running lanes and getting pressure on McCarron with just their base 3-4.

Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack make the middle of the Tide offensive line possibly the strongest in the country.  Irish nose tackle Louis Nix III must hold the point of attack and not get driven out of plays while defensive ends  Stephen Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore have got to pressure McCarron and contain the toss sweep from the speedy Yeldon.

The Irish defensive line can control the tempo of the game if they themselves can be effective. If they can cause McCarron to become uncomfortable from pressure and eat up space allowing the Irish linebackers to have uninhibited attempts at stopping Lacy and Yeldon, they’ll not only cause more turnovers on downs but they’ll frustrate the Tide offense as a whole. LSU was able to upset the natural flow of the Alabama offense by doing just this, only to see it slip away in the final seconds and keep the Tide on track for an SEC title shot.

Alabama loves long, time consuming drives to eat clock. Getting off the field on third down is crucial for Notre Dame’s success. Again, this is predicated on the success of their defensive line.

The second key is special teams. Who can avoid a special teams error that results in either a turnover or points for the other team? For the Irish this is an imperative aspect to winning the game. Alabama is tough enough, they’ll be unbeatable if you’re going to help them with blunders and gaffs.

The Buckeye connection: The Buckeyes have faced Alabama three times in their history and have never beaten them. They fell to the Tide twice in bowls (the ’95 Citrus and ’78 Sugar) and once in the now defunct Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey in 1986.

Still Awesome

Living in the Midwest I can tell you there is no love loss between Irish and Buckeye fans. Fortunately, we have had all the bragging rights since World War 2, as after losing to the Irish in ’35 and ’36 the Buckeyes have dominated the last three modern era match-ups with the Golden Domers. The game in 1995 at Ohio Stadium started out competitive and ended up a 46-26 Buckeye rout. The following year the Buckeyes did it again, this time in South Bend to the tune of 29-16. The most recent clash was the 2006 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona, a 34-20 Buckeye bullying of Charlie Weis and his Super Bowl rings.

How would the Buckeyes do against this years national title competitors, being that they are 12-0 themselves?

I like Ohio State’s chances with Alabama because I’m confident the Buckeyes front four in their base 4-3 of Jonathan Hankins, Garret Goebel, Nathan Williams and John Simon would be up to the task. The Buckeyes also bring more depth at the defensive line than the Irish, most notable a guy like Michael Bennett could be a major factor with his combination of size and speed. Urban Meyer could speed up the tempo offensively to limit Bama’s substitutions, much like I think the Irish will do, and hopefully have success moving the ball and scoring some points.

Against Notre Dame the Buckeyes would likely come with the same game plan defensively, while on offense they would need to attack the Irish defense a little differently than basic spread attack we saw in 2012. I’d love to see the Buckeye speed on the wings against the Irish secondary and I think Carlos Hyde would have to be a huge factor in breaking tackles in the second line of the Irish defense. This would soften up the linebackers in pass protection, notably Te’o, and allow some things to work down the field for Braxton Miller and the receivers.

Would they win either game? Honest answer: probably 5 out of 10 times they beat the Irish and 4 out of 10 they beat Alabama. But for one night, one shot, one game for it all? Anything can happen.

So who wins the BCS National Championship Game? According to my colleagues at the BBC, it’s a no-brainer that Alabama wins this as they all picked the Tide. Going against the grain, I like the Irish.

I’ve said all fall that I don’t believe the SEC is what is has been in recent years, that the rest of the country is beginning to catch up. If I didn’t truly believe that, I’d pick Alabama to win. The fact is I do believe it and a lot of this years bowl games support my theory. Northwestern got a win over Mississippi State. Clemson somehow didn’t “Clemson” and beat LSU. The Florida Gators, some peoples pick to go to the title game ahead of Alabama, were trounced by Big East powerhouse Louisville. Nebraska gave the SEC runner-up Georgia all it could handle. Same Georgia team that was a heartbeat away from playing for all the oranges in Miami. Even TTUN should have walked away with a win over South Carolina until they realized they’re TTUN and are being led by Flounder from Animal House.

This is an Alabama team that allowed a perpetual Big 12 middle of the pack underachiever to walk into its home stadium and beat them. It’s a team that by all accounts should have been beaten in Baton Rouge by LSU. They narrowly escaped an upset from Georgia in the SEC championship. Do these experiences make them tougher or point to a team that on paper is a giant but may still be too young to reach its potential heights? We’ll find out.

Maybe I just like the underdog, but there’s definitely something about the Irish that give them that “destiny” feel. Maybe it’s the ten year anniversary of Ohio State pulling off what was considered a mammoth upset over Miami to win the national championship that keeps replaying in my head. Perhaps it’s the similarities, some eerily similar, between the two games. For instance, the Buckeyes beat Miami by dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame must do the exact same to become victorious. Miami and Alabama come in as defending champions looking to repeat after playing a season where pundits couldn’t stop fawning over their greatness. Think about how Craig Krenzel beat the Hurricanes with his arm and more importantly his legs en route to winning the games MVP award. Everett Golson, while he may not necessarily have to be the MVP, will have the same task and level of burden placed on him. Both the Buckeyes and the Irish played a schedule that people thought was weak, winning games they “should” win and struggling with some teams that they on paper shouldn’t.

I like Notre Dame to shock the world on Monday night. I won’t predict double overtime, but I like a low scoring, tight game. I’ll say Notre Dame 20 Alabama 16.

3 Comments

  1. KenNo Gravatar
    January 6th, 2013 at 11:25 am

    Well done, Jason, thank you. I agree with your two key points, don’t flub it on special teams and oh-boy is the line play going to be fun to watch. If you’re into that sort of thing.

    I think that maybe a subset of ‘line play’ is what Alabama does to try to control Te’o, because I think you are right with ‘as Te’o goes, so go the Irish’.

    [Reply]

  2. JasonNo Gravatar
    January 7th, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Thanks, Ken! Welcome aboard, BTW!

    [Reply]

    KenNo Gravatar
    January 7th, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Thanks, Jason, glad to be here. Wow, after +1 qtr, ‘Bama offense is putting it to ND. If Irish don’t get anything going offensively pretty soon, this thing will be over by halftime. And they need to slow down Alabama offense..

    [Reply]

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