By - Keith Smith
If you had asked ESPN before the season started, "Which two teams would you like to have playing in the BCS Championship Game in January?" I'm pretty sure the odds were good you would have received the names of the two teams that will square off on January 7th -- Alabama and Notre Dame.
They are expecting a record number of viewers for the game, and for good reason. These two teams are both simultaneously the most beloved and the most hated teams in college football history (depending on who you talk to). People either love them or hate them. There is no in between.
|Photo from: espn.go.com|
Add to that the fact that one of the teams hasn't been close to a national title since the 80s, while the other has won two of the last three, and that both teams own an almost identical number of national championships, and that one (Notre Dame) is celebrating its 125th year of football, and that these two schools hated each other in the 60s and 70s, and you have a recipe for viewership records to be broken.
With all the hype and hoopla, the only thing left is to play the game. Oh, and of course to talk about it the next 96 hours before kickoff. So let's get started.
Both offenses are ball control style offenses. Alabama has two excellent running backs in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, both of whom rushed for over 1,000 yards this year. They will hammer away behind one of the most experienced offensive lines in recent memory. The Tide's passing game is efficient, if not spectacular. They do have perhaps the best big play threat of either team in Amari Cooper, but they don't throw to him 10 to 12 times a game like they did a few years ago with Julio Jones. Cooper only averages 4 catches per game, but almost 17 yards per catch. He may be a key to the game, though, because the weakest part of Notre Dame's stout defense is probably their secondary. They have arguably the best front 7 in the country, but we will get to that in a minute.
The Irish also have two very good running backs in Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. While Bama's backs are more punishing in their running style, Riddick and Wood are more slashing speedsters with lightning quick moves. Both styles work, and work well when it comes to ball control. Notre Dame leads the country in scoring drives of more than 5 minutes, which could be a key for them. They need to control the ball and keep their defense fresh to handle the pounding of the Alabama offensive line and powerful backs. Notre Dame has deep threats as well, although probably not as fast as Cooper. Their leading receiver is Tyler Eifert, considered by many as the best tight end in the country. He is 6'6, weighs over 250 pounds, and runs a 4.5 forty. He's been a matchup nightmare for everyone they've played this year.
Keys to Success:
Offensively, for Alabama, while their running game is certainly important, the key to winning this game will be the success of its passing attack. They won't be able to run roughshod over this defense as they did against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game a few weeks ago. In order to open up running lanes and keep the Irish linebackers in check, they will have to throw the ball successfully, and especially down the field to Cooper.
For the Irish, success will come by controlling and protecting the ball. They need to keep their own defense off the field and fresh to be able to take the punishment that the Alabama line and backs want to deliver. They will need at least a couple of those 5+ minute drives and remain turnover free to have a shot at victory.
In addition to being No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls, these teams are also No. 1 and No. 2 in scoring defense. That's not by coincidence. As the cliche goes, defense wins championships. If you like football circa 1938, you are going to love when either of these teams get into the red zone, as both rank in the top 4 in red zone defense.
The Irish D is captained by Heisman runner-up and All-American linebacker Manti Te'o, and the massive line is anchored by All-American Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III. They have only allowed 8 touchdowns inside the red zone this year, and only 2 rushing touchdowns, period. Both stats are the best of any team the past 8 years.
Bama's defense is led by All-Americans C.J. Mosely and Dee Milliner, and they are no slouch in the red zone, either. While allowing a few more TDs than the Irish (14), they have been stingy with field goals, only allowing 3 in the red zone, while Notre Dame has allowed 13. While this team has shown flashes of brilliance, they don't seem as dominant as last years or especially as the one from the 2009 national championship team. LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia were able to find weak spots in the defense and rack up bigger yardage totals than the Tide was used to allowing.
Keys to Success:
For Alabama, they have to stop Eifert, and they must get off the field on third down. If they let the Irish convert on third down and put together a couple of those 5+ minute drives, it could be a long night. Expect Milliner to draw coverage on Eifert most of the game, but I will be surprised if Saban doesn't choose to double-team him most of the night.
The Irish can't give up the big plays. They must keep Cooper in check, and they can't let Lacy and Yeldon break 15 and 20-yard runs (or longer). They must make Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron beat them. And while McCarron is one of the most efficient QBs in the country (26 TDs to only 3 INTs), he is still the least dangerous of the Tide's weapons and the one you want to force to make plays.
Neither of these teams really excel at special teams, but they don't stink it up, either. Both rank somewhere in the middle of the NCAA pack. There may be a slight advantage to Alabama when it comes to extra points and short field goals, as they have missed neither this season. And when you have a game like this, where points are of a premium, that could prove to be the difference in the game.
Keys to Success:
Without truly outstanding special teams on either side, the keys are about the same for both. Protect the ball, don't give up the long returns, play field position when you can. Not very exciting stuff, but don't be surprised in a game like this if one or two key special teams plays by one team or the other tilts the scales in the game.
For the Crimson Tide, this one is easy. Coach Nick Saban. I've said in this column before that, when given more than a week to prepare and game plan, Saban may be the best in the land. His team will be prepared, they will have a plan, and they will execute. But if Notre Dame can stay close (within a touchdown at halftime), the Saban factor decreases exponentially, since the weakest part of his coaching skill (and there aren't many) is his in-game adjustment ability.
The Irish intangibles are their quarterbacks. Starter Everett Golson has improved every game, and if the same one shows up that beat Oklahoma and Stanford, making good decisions with where to distribute the ball, protecting the ball, and making plays with his feet, they have a good chance to win. If the early season Golson reappears, it could be a long night. I used the plural on quarterbacks because their backup (and last season's starter) Tommy Rees, could end up playing a role. Irish fans hope he isn't called on, because it will mean that Golson is either hurt or struggling, neither of which will be good. Rees is a very experienced backup, though, and he prefers throwing to Eifert more than Golson does, so if he has to play, he could add a wrinkle that the Tide isn't looking for.
The only thing I can predict for sure is that this game will be a good, old-fashioned slobber-knocker, with tough, hard-nosed defense, smash-mouth offense, and a shortage of points. If the Tide can force a few 3-and-outs, keep Everett Golson and Tyler Eifert contained, and rush for 200+ yards, they can win. But if the Irish slow down the Tide's running game, protect the ball, and avoid the big play, so can they.
Notre Dame 20, Alabama 17