Notre Dame vs. Alabama: The Preview

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

Digging a little deeper to see who is going to win the crystal ball.

ONE GAME LEFT FOR ALL THE MARBLES.

Alabama (-9.5) at Notre Dame

Monday, January 7th

Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida

Kickoff: 8:30 PM ET

Television: ESPN

Last Meeting: 37-6 Notre Dame (1987)

Series: 5-1-0 Notre Dame

THE HISTORY

It's hard to believe that two of the most storied programs in the country played football for over 80 years before meeting each other on the field.

Finally, Notre Dame and Alabama met in the 1973 Sugar Bowl in one of the all-time classics.


After not playing each for decades, the Irish and Tide met the following season in the 1974 Orange Bowl as well, and 6 times total from 1973 to 1987.

This will be the first meeting in a quarter century.

In every meeting, Alabama has been ranked in the AP top 10 while this will be the 6th time both teams come in to the game ranked. The 1986 game during Lou Holtz' first season in South Bend was the only one in which the Irish were not ranked. That season the 2nd ranked Crimson Tide defeated Notre Dame 28-10 and it remains Alabama's lone win in the series.

~

THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME

*Nix Versus Jones (and the Alabama Interior)*

You know two physical teams are about to battle when this matchup has been talked about more in the press than any other so let's just get it out of the way now.

First, Louis Nix is the best pure nose guard in the country. Some may say John Jenkins from Georgia but Nix' numbers are better, Irish Chocolate takes on double-teams in his sleep, and Big Lou is a major cog in a defense that gives up nearly half as many rushing yards as the Bulldogs.

Nix now faces off against the nation's best center in Barrett Jones and a nasty as nails Alabama interior. If he's able to take on double teams effectively and occupy blockers to free up Irish linebackers it'll go a long way to winning a national title.

Also, Barrett Jones has still been nursing a left ankle sprain from the SEC championship that has kept him out of practice until this Tuesday, so keep an eye on that. It looks like Jones is definitely going to play but it's doubtful he'll be 100% by Monday.

*Notre Dame Corners vs. the Physicality of Alabama's Receivers*

The Alabama receivers may be the least of Notre Dame's worries in this game, especially if Kenny Bell is not able to play due to a broken leg. The Irish will have to contain Amari Cooper and prevent big plays---jobs they've excelled at this season---but the real challenge is going to come in matching the Tide's physicality.

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Amari Cooper winning a batte. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Alabama is going to establish the run and the Irish corners are going to have to excel at getting off blocks and limiting any damage from Lacy & Yeldon. Additionally, the Tide receivers are strong off the line and muscle their way in to their routes so knocking them around with help from Danny Spond is crucial in pass defense.

*Picking up the Alabama Blitzes*

The defensive line and the outside rush linebacker from Alabama likely aren't going to apply a ton of pressure by themselves. As such, Alabama will blitz frequently and when they do it can come from all over the place.

A key to this game will be how well the Irish offensive line, tight ends, and running backs pick up these blitzes and also how Notre Dame decides to counter-act them with some quick passes, screens, and checks at the line by Golson. The lack of slants and screens thrown this year, and the relative youth of Golson is going to pose a challenge in this regard.

*Notre Dame Receivers vs. the Physicality of Alabama's Secondary*

Notre Dame receivers are tough but they will be challenged in this game on every snap. I like the Irish wideouts' ability to get out and block (especially with less heralded but big and strong players like Daniel Smith) and open up some lanes in the running game.

However, this will be the most snaps all year that corners and nickel defenders are going to be jamming Notre Dame players at the line and trying to bully them out of their routes and comfort zone.

Moreover, the Crimson Tide play aggressive and are going to make it difficult for players like TJ Jones to make some of the critical leaping grabs on the sidelines that we saw so much of this year. Notre Dame is going to have to make some big plays through the air and can't let Alabama bully them in to a bunch of incompletions.

*Tackling Lacy & Yeldon at the 2nd level*

Power. Speed. Agility. That's what Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon bring to the open field when they burst through to the second level. Ideally, the Irish linebackers will be cleaning up on most run plays but it is inevitable that the Tide running backs break free and in to some green grass a handful of times.

When that happens, the Irish secondary must limit yards as much as possible.

Notre Dame has tackled brilliantly this year so it will be a fascinating matchup to watch. Yet, if Alabama is able to rip off a handful of 20+ yard runs it could be the difference in a close game.

*Irish Pressure Without Blitzing*

For my money, Notre Dame's defensive line (+Shembo) are the best in the country at stopping the run and rushing the passer. Their ability to do both is at an extremely high level right now and a huge reason why the Irish played so well on defense this season.

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It's Tuitt's time to shine. Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports

Yet, there should be some cause for concern because Alabama has a terrific offensive line and the Irish have had spells, especially in the 1st half, where the pressure just isn't doing much and opponents have been productive throwing the ball. Notre Dame has blitzed a little more this year as the players have become more comfortable in Diaco's system, but the defense has really been at its best when just 4 or 5 defenders are harassing the quarterback.

Ideally the Irish would like to get pressure without many blitzes. If they can't it might make the defense more susceptible to draws and screen passes when they do send an extra defender or two upfield.

*YAC for Notre Dame Running Backs*

This will be the most basic part of the Irish offense that they'll need to excel at. There will be some gaps to run through from time to time, but most times there will be an Alabama linebacker waiting for Riddick, Wood, or Atkinson near the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame is going to have to be able to turn 2 yards in to 5 or 6 yards to maintain some healthy balance on offense. If the Irish ground game is consistently bottled up it won't be good news for Golson as he'll have to face even more pressure to carry the offense with his arms and legs.

Given the performance this year from Theo Riddick and his ability to gain tough yards, I'd imagine we'll see him get close to 20 carries in this game, especially if he can play like he did in Notre Dame's last game. As such, I'd be surprised if we saw a ton of Cierre Wood other than to test the edges of the Alabama defense and add some speed on the inside zone.

*Alabama's Offensive Line at the 2nd Level*

Does Alabama dare block Louis Nix with one player? Will some quick chip blocks do enough? If the Tide consistently double-team Nix that will be one less blocker shooting out to block an Irish linebacker.

Alabama does nothing better with their offensive line than timing their blocks, getting to the next level and blocking more bodies to let their backs pick up more yards. I would expect that Notre Dame will put extra emphasis on their defensive line eating blocks, controlling gaps and preventing Bama linemen from moving ahead down field.

This matchup should be a battle of titans.

Even if Notre Dame eats blocks reasonably well and is able to slow down the Tide running game, it will still hamper the Irish's ability to get after the passer on playaction. This will be the chess match and pick-your-poison gameplan Bob Diaco will have to work with when facing such a balanced and effective offense.

~

KEYS TO AN IRISH VICTORY

*Make Alabama Sustain Methodical Drives*

Take a look at the chart below and you'll see Alabama is not good at sustaining methodical drives...because they've been so explosive on offense and haven't had to rely on stringing together long scoring drives with a ton of plays.

Some of that is the Tide defense setting up their offense with a lot of short fields, but most of it comes from Alabama's 6.92 yards per play (5th nationally), 5.56 rushing average (6th nationally), and 9.3 yards per passing attempt (3rd nationally).

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McCarron was sharp in last year's title game. John David Mercer/US Presswire

Notre Dame absolutely must prevent the big play---something they've excelled at this season with just 29 20+ yard plays from scrimmage and just 9 30+ yard plays from scrimmage allowed---and force Alabama to put together numerous drives of 10+ plays in order to put points on the board.

This has been Notre Dame's MO all season and now more than ever it has to work for the Irish to win. Forcing Alabama to take a lot of plays to score is going to be a small win for Notre Dame because it will ultimately drive down the available points and make it more of a defensive battle---something the Irish are more comfortable with.

*Come Up With Explosive Plays On Offense*

Notre Dame lacked explosiveness on offense this year, but the Irish were one of the best methodical teams in the country. In an effort to reduce turnovers (killed a talented team in 2011) and slowly bring along a new quarterback, the Irish were deliberately anti-explosive and it is through this lens that the Notre Dame offense must be viewed.

When you can methodically continue to pick up first downs and move the ball against good competition, you have a really good offense. Combined with a suffocating defense, the Irish have been content to play TresselBall™ this season and it paid off to the tune of a 12-0 record.

Yet, even the most methodical and efficient teams need explosive plays on offense.

Golson placed a perfect long-ish ball to Eifert in the end zone to spark a rally against Stanford, and the Oklahoma game was memorable for Cierre Wood's long touchdown run and Golson's playaction bomb to Chris Brown late in the game on a must-score drive.

Notre Dame is going to need some plays like this Alabama if they are to win the crystal ball. Like the Irish defense, Alabama is going to bet Notre Dame can't string together long sustained drives and put points on the board, so picking up some chunk plays will be imperative.

*Improved Red Zone Efficiency*

The red zone issues this year didn't seem that big of a deal because Notre Dame kept winning and the fact that they were even worse (at least in perception via turnovers) in 2011. However, this area must improve in the BCS title game or the Irish may not have a chance.

Notre Dame scored on 79.3% of its red zone opportunities this year---good for 79th nationally and marginally better than 2011. The touchdown rate was just 46.5% and a woeful 119th in the nation---far, far worse than 2011.

Yes, the Irish were very conservative and content in most games to kick a field goal with a lead from the start in nearly every game, but not punching it in to the end zone after so many methodically long drives is the number one reason why Notre Dame's offense is viewed by many as good and nothing better.

If the Irish get 4 red zone attempts at least 3 touchdowns may be needed to win the game, and that means being more aggressive at the risk of turning the ball over.

*Get 100 Yards Rushing From The Running Backs*

Notre Dame's running game once again improved under head coach Brian Kelly eclipsing the 2,000-yard and 20 TD mark for the second straight season. The offensive line has been able to gel nicely under first-year coach Harry Heistand and both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are excellent college running backs.

However, running the ball with success and 'Alabama defense' usually don't go together very well.

The Tide have kept their last 23 BCS opponents under 200 yards rushing and 17 of those teams were also held under 100 yards.

20121124_jla_sc5_828

Theo dominating. Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame may be able to get over 100 counting Golson's rushing but in order to keep enough balance on offense the Irish will really need to crack the century mark with their running backs. If they can do that and establish a strong enough ground game it'll go a long way.

Texas A&M had the most rushing yards against Alabama this year with 165 yards, but 92 of those came from quarterback Johnny Manziel on 18 rushes. Golson is likely not to run that much so the burden will fall on Riddick and Wood. A nice balance of Riddick (75 yards), Wood (35), and Golson (40) may be about as good as it can get for the Irish ground game---and that production may be what is needed.

*Make Special Teams A Draw*

Aside from Fish taking a look at the placekickers for the title game, we did not mention special teams in our unit previews. We will do so now.

Punting is so hard to evaluate but things appear pretty even for both teams. Alabama's punter Cody Mandell has a 43.8 average while Irish punter Ben Turk has a 40.6 average. Notre Dame has forced 19 fair catches while Alabama has forced 13. Mandell dropped 17 balls inside the 20, and Turk 13. Alabama surrendered 7.67 yards per return while the Irish were just slightly lower at 7.30 yards/return.

Both squads have very strong coverage units.

The difference may be in the return game where the Irish are nonexistent with punt returns and took a step back this year in kick returns. Davonte Neal and George Atkinson have the talent to be dangerous with the ball in their hands but it hasn't translated to success in 2012. As Brian Kelly mentioned this week in his presser we may see some better blocking as older and more experienced players see time on special teams.

I'm not sure Cyrus Jones and Christion Jones are more talented than Neal and Atkinson, but Alabama's return game has been more productive this season. It shouldn't be a major worry for Irish fans, but this isn't the type of game where you want to be really bad on special teams and have that be the difference in a close game.

*Golson Doing Improvisational Things*

There is no doubt that Golson is the X-factor in this game. Alabama pretty much never loses to a team with sub-par quarterback play (except for LSU) and never when the opposing QB has an off game with a lot of turnovers.

The secret to beating Alabama seems to be strong quarterback play, and preferably from someone with decent-to-good mobility.

Out of the Tide's 7 losses since 2008, 6 came against quarterbacks who could generally be considered dual-threat players or at least quite serviceable with their legs (Tim Tebow, Brian Johnson, Jordan Jefferson x2, Cam Newton, and Johnny Manziel).

Aside from LSU---who don't do anything conventional with Les Miles---each opponent to beat Alabama had a great performance from the QB position. Even including Jefferson, those 7 games featured quarterbacks putting up 111 completions on 157 attempts (70.7%), 1,430 yards, 15 TD's and just 1 interception. They also chipped in 254 rushing yards on 86 attempts.

If you average those numbers out (16 for 22, 204 yards, 2 TD, 36 rushing yards), that's what Notre Dame is going to need from Everett Golson on Monday---if not a little better.

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The X-factor. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There's also a chance this will turn in to the type of game where Golson has to throw 35 passes. That could mean the Irish ground game is struggling or they are behind early, but I wouldn't count out the possibility that Golson gets in to a groove early, there's some up-tempo mixed in throughout the game, and it adds up to a few more passes than we expect.

Bottom line, Golson is going to have to make good decisions, protect the ball, and come up with roughly 250 total yards and 3 touchdowns. If he can do that without turning the ball over I like Notre Dame's chances.

Football Outsiders Advanced Stats for 2012

STAT IRISH BAMA
S&P Overall 5 1
S&P Offense 10 5
S&P Rush Offense 13 4
S&P Pass Offense 7 8
Standard Down Offense 6 12
Passing Down Offense 15 3
S&P Defense 5 2
S&P Rush Defense 7 2
S&P Pass Defense 11 2
Standard Down Defense 4 2
Passing Down Defense 12 1
Explosive Drives Offense 76 7
Methodical Drives Offense 12 94
Explosive Drives Defense 1 13
Methodical Drives Defense 74 12
FEI Overall 3 4
FEI Offense 6 19
FEI Defense 2 8
F/+ Overall 5 1
F/+ Offense 6 10
F/+ Defense 4 3
F/+ Special Teams 89 30

~

Final Thoughts

The national championship is finally around the corner after a much too long break. With 6 weeks to dissect everything there doesn't seem to be much football to talk about now, although I was able to pull it off above.

So let's ditch the X's and O's and talk some big picture stuff.

It does feel like this season has been a bit of a dream. In late August the average of this website's staff predictions for the season came out to 9-3 with only one wise man (Jim Miesle) predicting a 11-1 record and even he undervalued the Irish!

Due to the surprise of this season I've been fighting against the 'Just Happy to Be Here' feeling, but ultimately that feeling suggests Notre Dame can't win this game.

Notre Dame can win this game.

In thinking about the reasons why the Irish can win this game (in the grand scheme, beyond "Golson is going to play the game of his life") and a few things come to mind.

The SEC Streak Has To End Eventually

6 years is a really long time in the world of sports. When a non-SEC team last won a title Vince Young was Black Jesus and considered one of the greatest players in college history. Now he can't hold a job in the NFL.

Notre Dame was only 12 months removed from the Molder of Men, we didn't yet snicker at the thought of a Schematic Advantage, and Brian Kelly was still a little-known coach at Central Michigan.

The balance of power doesn't have to move away from the SEC, but at some point the national championship is going to end.

It won't last forever.

College Football Hates Dynasties

The prevailing mood across the nation is that a Notre Dame win would be an upset---a disturbance of the natural order of modern college football.

Yet, there hasn't been a single repeat champion in the BCS era.

20121027_mje_sc5_280

This is what I believe in. Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports

What's more, there has only been one repeat champion (Nebraska, 1994-95) in over 30 years of college football.

Yes, Notre Dame is the underdog according to Vegas but winning two straight national titles (and 3 out of the last 4) would be wildly more outside the box of recent history.

I know it's been a while since the last Irish championship but it is more common for traditional powerhouses that struggled for years to come up and win a title, than it is for one school to dominate at such a high level for half a decade and win a bunch of championships in that time span.

It Might As Well Be Notre Dame

Here are some tweets to help illustrate some points:

Some might call Notre Dame a team of destiny. The 2012 Cinderella. The spirit of the Return to Glory™ in the flesh.

Just take some cliché, wrap it in some media approved sugar, and there you have it.

The reality of Notre Dame is that they are a highly talented and well coached team with the leadership and playmaking ability to go 13-0 and beat another great football program on the big stage.

No ghost of Rockne, nor luck of the Irish---just a fundamentally sound football team ready to win.

Ultimately, I don't buy in to the threadbare phrases and cheesy motto's that usually accompany any Notre Dame team that performs well in a given season. That stuff belittles the accomplishments this 2012 squad has made. It's a subtle way of saying Notre Dame isn't talented enough and I'll have none of that.

This Notre Dame team is really good. Better yet, they are constructed to compete and beat teams like Alabama with strong line play, a run-stuffing defense, productive running game on offense, and a dynamic quarterback.

I don't believe in the lore surrounding Notre Dame, and if I do I believe in Te'o, Tuitt, Nix, Riddick, Golson, Jones, Martin, Diaco, and Kelly much more.

If there's a team that can end the SEC winning streak in BCS National Title games, it could very well be the 2012 Fighting Irish.

Game predictions from the One Foot Down staff coming tomorrow.

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