Breaking down the big boys up front for the national title game.
Who has the edge at offensive line in this game?
*Rankings come from the 247 Sports Composite ranking for the player's respective class.
LT Cyrus Kouandijo, Sophomore
6'6" 311 pounds
No. 1 OT nationally
LG Chance Warmack, Senior
6'3" 320 pounds
No. 21 OG
C Barrett Jones, 5th-year Senior
6'5" 302 pounds
No. 5 OG
RG Anthony Steen, RS Junior
6'3" 303 pounds
No. 23 OG
RT D.J. Fluker, RS Jr.
6'6" 335 pounds
No. 2 OT
LT Zack Martin, RS Junior
6'4" 304 pounds
No. 16 OT
LG Chris Watt, RS Junior
6'3" 310 pounds
No. 3 OG
C Braxston Cave, 5th-year Senior
6'3" 304 pounds
No. 2 C
RG Mike Golic, 5th-year Senior
6'3" 300 pounds
RT Christian Lombard, RS Sophomore
6'5" 309 pounds
No. 4 OG
Alabama's best unit on their team is either the running backs or offensive line---take your pick. We already covered the running backs on Tuesday so now it's time to take a look at the big boys up front for the Tide.
First, the Associated Press named 3 Alabama linemen to their All-American teams: Jones (1st-team), Warmack (1st), and Fluker (2nd). This was the second straight season being a 1st-team All-American for Barrett Jones. Notre Dame placed one player, Braxston Cave (3rd-team), on the AP list.
The Crimson Tide are strong at the edges with two studs. Left tackle Cyrus Kouandijo was thought to be the top recruit in the country by some experts for the 2011 class. After starting 8 games as a true freshman last year he injured his knee and missed the final 5 games of 2011, but has rebounded nicely in 2012.
D.J. Fluker is another elite recruit (and a seriously large individual) who took a redshirt his first season but will be making his 35th career start at right tackle against Notre Dame.
At the guard positions Chance Warmack played sparingly as a freshman in 2009 but will be making his 39th career start in the title game, and Anthony Steen is in his second year as starter after missing the last 4 games of 2011 with an injury. Both guards have been developed nicely by the Alabama coaching staff.
The anchor of the Alabama offensive line is 5th-year senior Barrett Jones who has been showered with awards and recognition the past two seasons. Already a two-time national champion, Jones played his first two seasons at right guard, won the Outland Trophy last year at left tackle, and has played 2012 at center. He'll be making his astonishing 49th career start in this national title game.
Given the pedigree and experience of this Alabama offensive line it's no surprise that they are crazy talented. I'm not sure they're as great in pass blocking as a line with 3 All-Americans should be (more on this below) but they are an excellent run blocking unit.
The thing that jumps out to me is their ability to perfectly time their blocks and move on to the next level and pick up more blockers. This is something Notre Dame has struggled a little bit with this season---either they're engaged too long and don't cover a linebacker or they're a little too quick to get to the next level and allow a defensive lineman to disrupt the back near the line of scrimmage.
That's not to say that the Irish linemen don't do this well most of the time, but the Alabama linemen have perfected it to an art form---just ask Georgia.
Alabama is one of the best rushing teams in the country, but the Irish aren't that far behind.
The Tide rushed for 224.62 yards per game this season (20th nationally) while Notre Dame rumbled for 202.5 yards per game (27th). Alabama was more explosive on a per rush basis averaging 5.56 for each carry (5th nationally and 3rd best among BCS teams) while the Irish averaged 4.99 yards per carry (28th nationally).
Looking at Football Outsiders' FEI defense rankings, the Irish played against significantly tougher opponents. However the S&P rush defense rankings shows that Alabama played against slightly tougher rush defenses.
The Crimson Tide faced an average defensive FEI ranking of 64.3 (that's with me putting Western Carolina at a ranking of No. 150 which may be generous considering they are a 1-10 FCS team) versus Notre Dame facing an average ranking of 43.7. That includes 5 Top 25 defenses faced by Notre Dame (with the 6th and 7th best teams still inside the top 40) with Alabama facing just 3 teams in the top 25 and no top 10 teams (the Irish faced 2).
Additionally, Notre Dame didn't face a single FEI defense outside the top 100, while Alabama faced 3 such teams in Florida Atlantic, Auburn, and the aforementioned Western Carolina.
The S&P rush defense numbers are interesting for both team's opponents this year. Notre Dame was pretty much feast or famine as the Irish faced the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 15th best rush defenses in the country, but the 5th best team on the schedule was USC at 53rd overall. The rest of the schedule was filled with average rush defenses or bad ones ending with Navy at 103rd as the worst.
Notre Dame's S&P rush defense average for their opponents came out to 51.5 while Alabama's averaged out to 46.4 (again putting Western Carolina at No. 150). The Tide played 8 rush defenses inside the top 31 in the country which is really impressive.
Overall, the S&P rushing offense stats have Alabama at 4th best nationally and Notre Dame 13th best, which feels about right.
In terms of pass blocking the Irish have been more productive this season.
The Tide have given up 1.77 sacks per game (54th nationally) while Notre Dame has given up 1.33 per game (29th nationally). Both teams played pretty even competition in terms of opponents getting after the quarterback with Alabama facing a schedule with an average of 66.1 and Notre Dame at 67.6 in the national sack rankings.
Again it was feast or famine (largely) for the Irish as they faced the 1st and 5th best sack teams in the country (Alabama's highest team was Missouri at 13th) but Notre Dame only played 3 teams inside the top 50 while the Crimson Tide played 6 teams.
Nevertheless, Alabama gave up 23 sacks in 13 games---and 1 sack for every 13 pass attempts. Notre Dame gave up 16 sacks in 12 games---and 1 sack for every 22 pass attempts.
One might argue that Golson's athleticism and quickness helps the Irish offensive line avoid sacks, but at the same time, Everett has run himself into many sacks while needlessly avoiding pressure that isn't there. He's also been tripped up several times near the line of scrimmage while taking off running that bring some sacks to Notre Dame opponents.
Further, one could argue that A.J. McCarron's lack of athleticism hurts his team's sack numbers, but should a line with 3 All-Americans be giving up so many sacks in a run-heavy offense built around a lot of playaction passing?
I'm going with Alabama, but it is closer than the experts think.
At this point, Zack Martin and Chris Watt are criminally underrated on the national scene. They might not be All-Americans but they are not that far off.
That gives the Irish a left tackle-left guard-center combination that if it isn't on par with Alabama, it's awfully close.
But what about that right side for Notre Dame? With so long to prepare Nick Saban is going to have a bulls-eye on that right guard and right tackle, and this is not good for the Irish.
Christian Lombard has turned into a fine player in his first year of starting and Mike Golic has definitely improved and exceeded most of our expectations. Yet, this side is weaker than anywhere on the Alabama line.
Notre Dame will have their work cut out for them against Alabama's talented defense but I'm excited for Tuitt, Nix, Kap, and Shembo to face off against the Tide's strong offensive line.