Before we get started, let’s establish one thing. Alabama is the favorite to win the BCS National Championship, but this game is not going to be a blowout. During the regular season, Alabama and Notre Dame both proved themselves to be excellent football teams.
Both played difficult schedules; Jeff Sagarin rates Notre Dame’s schedule as the 30th-toughest in the nation and ranks Alabama’s 35th. Notre Dame faced seven teams with winning records; Alabama faced six. Notre Dame played three teams that ranked in the final BCS Top 25; Alabama played four.
The rankings can’t seem to agree on which team is better.
The BCS standings rate Notre Dame #1 and Alabama #2. Jeff Sagarin’s ratings have Alabama #1 and Notre Dame #2. Football Outsiders’ S&P ratings rank Alabama #1 and Notre Dame #5. Brian Fremeau’s FEI has Notre Dame #3 and Alabama #4.
Point-spreads aside, these are two evenly matched teams. The game is going to be close, and there’s a recipe for success in those sorts of situations.
Close games typically come down to some combination of three factors: turnovers, big plays, and third down. The winner of this game will be the team that can gain (and keep) possession of the ball, gain (and prevent) huge chunks of yardage, and stay on (and get off) the field.
If regular season results are any indication, the Irish have an advantage in all three..
On the surface, this seems like an easy win for the Tide. Against its full schedule, Bama ranks 13th in the nation in turnover margin, at +1 per game. Notre Dame was a respectable 23rd, averaging +.75 per game.
/Warms up Stephen A. Smith impression
HOWEVUH, removing the cupcakes from the equation tells a different story. Including only FBS opponents with winning records, Alabama’ margin drops to +.5 per game; Notre Dame’s margin soars into the top five in the nation, an advantage of +1.43 per game.
This isn't the sort of Alabama defense that can take the ball away at will. It's an outstanding team that feasted on crappy competition, but one that's more suited to wait around for an opponent's mistake rather than actively causing one.
If a turnover ends up impacting the game, odds are it’ll be the Irish that force it.
Though it wouldn’t be one of the first names called in a list of the nation’s most explosive offenses, Alabama thrives on making the big play, ranking 15th in the nation with a total of 69 plays gaining more than 20 yards.
Unfortunately for the Tide, Notre Dame is even better at preventing big plays than Alabama is at converting them. The Irish have allowed only 29 plays of more than 20 yards this season, just under two and a half per game.
Specifically, Notre Dame’s defense spells a rough day for Alabama’s freshman wideout Amari Cooper. So far this season, Cooper has reeled in eight catches of more than 30 yards (In total, Alabama has 32).
Notre Dame has allowed exactly six such plays; one every other game. That’s the best mark in college football, and one made even more impressive considering that Notre Dame has already faced three of the nation’s best big play passing offenses in Michigan (38 plays), Miami (32 plays), and USC (32 plays).
Big plays cut both ways, but don’t expect much disruption from Alabama’s defense. Notre Dame runners have been tackled behind the line of scrimmage just 52 times. Only seven teams allowed fewer TFLs.
And it’s not as though the Irish haven’t faced tough defenses. Notre Dame has already played three teams (Stanford, USC, and BYU) that have accumulated more TFLs than Bama.
Though the TV ratings may indicate otherwise, Notre Dame will likely make sure that the national championship game is a relatively boring affair.
As you might expect, both teams are excellent on third down, on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame is less than a percentage point better on offense, Alabama is not quite two points better on defense.
In short yardage, it's a push. Both teams are great on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame has authored some epic stands this season, but Alabama is just as solid up front. It's going to be an exciting match-up, but not one that either team is likely to win consistently.
So, let's move on to the quarterbacks. Conventional wisdom would grant a huge advantage to the experienced A.J. McCarron, but the numbers don’t back that up.
In situations when a third down conversion relies completely on the quarterback (specifically, third down and seven or more yards to go), Notre Dame’s Everett Golson was significantly better. In those situations, McCarron converted 28% of his 39 attempts; Golson delivered a first down in 37% of his 41 chances. To be clear, these conversions are just on pass attempts. Golson converted an additional two first downs of more than ten yards with his legs.
When it comes down to the plays on which drives sink or swim, the numbers favor Golson.
It’s a counterintuitive fact, but a fact nonetheless. Just like the fact that when the outcome of the BCS National Championship game comes is decided by turnovers, big plays, or third downs, Notre Dame has the advantage.