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College Football Playoff Analytics Preview: Notre Dame Fighting Irish VS Alabama Crimson Tide

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Analytics To Pull Off An Upset

Tribune Photo/Robert Franklin

Notre Dame has qualified for their second College Football Playoff in three years, joining just the Alabama Crimson Tide, Clemson Tigers, Ohio State, and Oklahoma Sooners as schools that have been invited to the dance multiple times. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will now need to prepare for one of the best teams in recent memory in Nick Saban’s Alabama squad. The Crimson Tide can hang up points like no other, and Notre Dame needs to be prepared to keep up with them if they want to win this game.

Please note we are changing our definition of garbage time to exclude plays that occur when win probability is between 5-95% according to cfpscrapR’s model. Previously we had been using Bill Connely’s definition that just used point differential by quarter to determine garbage time. This new method should give us a truer look at when meaningful plays are occurring, especially when previewing an Alabama squad that has been in a fair number of non-competitive games this year. For more information on the statistics we used in this preview, please follow this link to our analytics primer.

There is a reason this Alabama team had three offensive playmakers in the top five in Heisman voting. They have the best passing offense in the country, and it is especially lethal on early downs. They throw 52% of the time on 1st and 2nd down and average a gaudy 0.74 EPA/pass, gaining 12.1 yards per play. While the 0.15 EPA/rush they gain on early downs is nothing to scoff at, Mac Jones is the engine of this offense. The Irish have been good but not great against the pass this season, and have been extremely susceptible to deep ball throwing. Mercifully Jones is not a strong runner, so the Irish will not have to worry about a repeat of last week where Trevor Lawrence ran wild. They absolutely do need to worry about a repeat of Lawrence’s deep passing stats, so they need to tighten up their over the top coverage or this could get ugly quickly.

Much is made of Alabama’s explosiveness, but a huge part of their success is their efficiency on early downs leading to easier 3rd downs. Their average 3rd down distance is just 4.6 yards (for context, the Irish average third down faced is 6.7 yards), allowing them to have monster success throwing and running on third down. They save Najee Harris for most of these short yardage situations, with their average third down rush attempt only needing 1.9 yards and picking it up 84% of the time. Alabama has a great offensive game plan, a great quarterback, and a great running back. What more could you ask for?

Oh yeah, they have a Heisman level wide receiver too. No Jaylen Waddle has been no problem for the Tide, as John Metchie and particularly Devonta Smith have stepped up in the superstar’s absence. As we mentioned Harris is not spectacularly efficient outside third down, but he handles a massive workload and is key to Alabama’s offense. He’s PFF’s 5th highest graded Running Back and has also developed into a very capable pass catcher, posting an 83.4 Receiving Grade. But Notre Dame can contain him if they can defeat blocks, as he ranks only 46th out of 88 Running Backs in Yards After Contact Per Attempt (min. 100 attempts).

That was a short preview because we all know how good Alabama is on offense. Clark Lea is a spectacular coach, and Notre Dame has playmakers all across the defense. However, in this era of college football offense wins championships. Alabama is going to score points. Probably a ton of them even if the defense plays well. It is up to the offense to keep up.

This is not an unreasonable ask against this Crimson Tide defense either. The Tide are pedestrian defending both the run and pass, and are coming off of a 46 point torching at the hands of the Florida Gators. This defense can be had and is not nearly at the level of Clemson’s defense from a week ago.

The key to hanging points on this defense is to run play action, throw on early downs, and get Ian Book comfortable in the pocket with some quick hitting routes early. Notre Dame fared extremely well in the ACC Championship when Book delivered from a clean pocket, and were excellent throwing overall in the first half. The Irish chose not to throw on early downs to try to chew the clock and keep Trevor Lawrence off the field. For a longer analysis of why chewing clock is an inefficient strategy, please feel free to read our ACC Championship Recap but suffice it to say ending up in frequent third and longs is too heavy of a price to pay to shorten the game. The only way Notre Dame wins this one is if they get into a shootout and get a bit lucky (turnovers, special teams miscues, etc.) at some critical junctures.

None of this is to say that Kyren Williams will not be helping this football team beat Alabama, but Clemson gave us the exact game plan last week. Force their defense to respect Book’s ability to push the ball downfield, then spread to run with Williams. Book’s average target depth of 7.8 last weekend will not be enough to create space for Williams, it has to be closer to the 13 yard average target depth they rolled out against Clemson the first time. If the Irish run the ball into stacked boxes in this game, it will be over quickly, and Monday’s press conference was not encouraging.

Notre Dame needs to spread the field to have the type of explosiveness they will need to keep up on the scoreboard. McKinley, Skowronek, and Davis are a solid trio and should be sharing the field frequently. Alabama superstar cornerback Patrick Surtain can only cover one receiver at once, and if they choose to blanket McKinley the Irish may find themselves leaning heavily on Avery Davis as they did in the first Clemson game. Michael Mayer should split out and move around the formation to create headaches for Alabama matching up. The Irish need to create space in the box by spreading out if they are going to insist on heavily running the football, and lean into their 10 (1 RB 0 TE) and 11 (1 RB 1 TE) formations that have been good to them so far.

Prediction

I almost want to make two predictions here, because either Brian Kelly’s common discussions of playing defense on offense this week are misdirection or he is being serious and this team is going to try their Clemson game plan again against an even better team. If it is misdirection, I would still pick Alabama to win but it would be within the twenty point spread similar to last weekend’s SEC Championship game. If it is not misdirection, strap in for what could be even uglier than the ACC Championship game. I’m going to split the difference and pick Alabama 45-28, but this could go one of two ways and a heavy blowout is absolutely on the table if the Irish fail to learn from the ACC Championship.