By: Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
With another grueling season of college football in the books, the highly anticipated BCS National Championship Game has finally arrived.
As if having the crystal football on the line was not enough, the matchup of teams could not get any bigger. No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama represent two of the most prestigious programs in the history of college football, and the pedigree simply doesn’t get any better than this.
Although the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish sit atop the polls, the journey to Sun Life Stadium hasn’t been perfectly smooth for either squad.
Alabama won its first nine games of the season before suffering its only loss, a narrow defeat at home to eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on Nov. 10. The Tide (12-1, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) survived several other close games along the way, including prototypical SEC slugfests at LSU and against Georgia in the conference title game.
Notre Dame (12-0) comes into Miami unscathed, but the Irish flirted with defeat several times in their own right. ND won five games by seven points or fewer in 2012, including three that were decided by a single field goal. It took overtime and a bit of magic for the Irish to escape with wins over Stanford and Pittsburgh, respectively, but the end result was an undefeated season and a date with the Tide tonight.
Alabama Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Alabama’s offense features two of the best running backs in the SEC in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, who have combined for 2,181 yards and 27 touchdowns on the season. Both backs are averaging about 6.4 yards per carry, and their production against a stout Notre Dame front will be critical.
As good as Lacy and Yeldon have been individually, however, their success is largely due to the stellar play of Alabama’s offensive line. The Tide’s front five, anchored by All-American center Barrett Jones and left guard Chance Warmack, has been the best unit in all of college football and cleared the way for the SEC’s second-best rushing attack. Alabama has shown an ability to wear down defenses with a relentless ground-and-pound approach, but if there is any front seven in college football that is built to combat that pounding, it’s Notre Dame’s.
The Irish defense comes into the game with the fourth-ranked rushing defense in the country. Middle linebacker Manti Te’o serves as the field general in the center of Notre Dame’s 3-4 defense, while a trio of behemoths controls the trenches. Defensive lineman Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore have been stellar all year. Nix III, Tuitt and Lewis-Moore – who average 6-feet-4 in height while weighing in above 300 pounds – use their considerable bulk and technical prowess to control gaps and allow Te’o and the linebacking corps to fly to the football.
The battle between Jones and Nix III will be one to watch, as it will determine which side controls the point of attack. Jones has been battling an injured left foot since the SEC Championship Game, but is slated to go for Alabama. Notre Dame has been nearly impenetrable all season, while Alabama has dominated the line of scrimmage on its way to 224 rushing yards per game. Something will have to give tonight that in regard.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has been fantastic at the helm for the Tide, tossing 26 touchdown passes to only three interceptions. The junior from Mobile rarely makes mental mistakes, and his arm proved to be the difference for the Crimson Tide late in the SEC Championship Game against UGA. McCarron has great chemistry with freshman wide-out Amari Cooper, who has been an explosive playmaker on his way to nearly 900 yards and nine scores in his debut season.
While McCarron and Co. have proven to be dangerous, stopping the run will be objective number one for the Notre Dame defense.
Notre Dame Offense vs. Alabama Defense
Like Alabama, Notre Dame has a talented offensive line held together by experience on the interior.
Fifth-year senior center Braxton Cave leads the unit as a third-year starter, while redshirt junior Chris Watt and senior Mike Golic Jr. occupy the guard spots on either side. Cave will have his hands full with Alabama nose tackle Jesse Williams, who weighs in at a hefty 320 pounds and is projected to be a high-round NFL Draft selection this year.
The matchup between the Irish offensive line and the Tide front will be key, as Notre Dame has been reliant on the running game this season. Like Alabama, Notre Dame averages over 200 yards per game on the ground.
Theo Riddick is the leading rusher for Notre Dame this season after racking up 880 yards and five touchdowns through 12 contests. Riddick, a converted receiver who also has over 360 yards through the air, is versatile out of the backfield and can create matchup problems by lining up in the slot or on the outside. In addition to Riddick, the Irish have received valuable contributions in the running game from Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III, who have combined for over 1,100 yards and nine scores while averaging over 6.7 yards per carry.
Alabama is well-suited to stop the run with a deep rotation that has allowed only 79 yards per game this season, easily the best in the nation. Williams creates problems in the middle of the line while Damion Square, Quinton Dial, Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan rotate at the end spots.
Linebacker C.J. Moseley has been elite this year for the Tide with a team-high 99 tackles, including seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Adrian Hubbard leads the team with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks, and Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest have been solid in the inside ’backer rotation alongside Moseley.
As is the case on the other side of the ball, the matchup between the Tide front seven and the Irish offensive line is a close one, with neither team holding a glaring advantage. Alabama’s defensive numbers speak for themselves, and the Notre Dame front is one of the best units that the Tide has seen this season.
Everett Golson will lead the Irish from the quarterback position, where he threw for 2,135 yards, 11 touchdowns and just five picks. Golson has not proven to be an elite passer, but he is a very good athlete who can make plays with his mobility. The last time Alabama faced a mobile quarterback was in the loss to TAMU, where Manziel used his feet to extend plays against the Tide.
That’s not to say that Golson has the same playmaking ability as Johnny Football, but if he can use his legs to avoid the blitz and extend plays, he could find some success through the air. His primary target is 6-foot-6 tight end Tyler Eifert, who led the team with 44 receptions for 653 yards and four scores. Eifert’s large frame has provided a safety valve for Golson this year, especially on third downs.
On the outside, receivers T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels will take on an Alabama secondary anchored by safety Robert Lester and corner Dee Milliner. The Irish receivers are talented, but the Crimson Tide should have the advantage in talent in the secondary on Monday night.
Nick Saban has shown an incredible ability to find an opponent’s weakness, however minor it may appear, and exploit it. Look for Alabama to key on the run and try to force the young Golson into mistakes.