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Notre Dame Football, CFP Semifinals: Alabama Crimson Tide Rose Bowl Q&A with Roll ‘Bama Roll

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After the 34-10 drumming against Clemson just before Christmas, the Irish have to play #1 Alabama in the CFP Semis. Pat Rick reached out to Roll ‘Bama Roll to discuss how painful this could be.

BCS National Title Game C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

HAPPY NEW YEAR’S EVE, Y’ALL!!!

It’s been a peaceful little break in between Notre Dame Fighting Irish football games, and I hope you all were able to get some safe, quality family time in if possible — we all definitely needed it after that ACC Championship.

Now, having seen our beloved squad suffer their first loss of the season in humiliating fashion against a full-strength Clemson offense, things feel a great deal bleaker as we prepare to watch the Irish take on the #1, undefeated Alabama Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl, which is being played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.

Alabama’s offense has been SUPERB this season, boasting a 0.7 points-per-PLAY average and featuring three of the top five Heisman vote-getters in RB Najee Harris, QB Mac Jones, and WR DeVonta Smith. Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea, in what could very well be his last game with ND before officially taking over at Vanderbilt as head coach, will have to try to lead his defense to do what they couldn’t do against Trevor Lawrence and co. — slow down a top-flight offense.

Of course, the much bigger issue in that Clemson game was the Notre Dame offense’s inability to score on early drives (and eventually its inability to even move the ball at all), so OC Tommy Rees and QB Ian Book have plenty to try to prove against a ‘Bama defense that is not quite as good as past versions, but still crawling with blue-chip speed, athleticism, and overall talent.

So, considering the mammoth task ahead of the Irish, I figured it would be a good idea to reach out to Brent Taylor, executive editor over at Roll ‘Bama Roll. I asked Brent all sorts of questions, ranging from whether he thinks ND has a chance, to which individual player he thinks will be the biggest factor for Alabama on Friday, to tons of your Twitter-submitted questions about Mac Jones being ambidextrous, Nick Saban going to confession, how to make Alabama BBQ sauce, and much, much more.

Let’s jump into it, folks — arm ourselves with all the info we need to know before tomorrow afternoon’s big game!

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1. The SEC Championship game was the first time this season that an opponent came within single digits of the Tide.

So, let’s get straight to it — is there ANY way you think this Notre Dame team can hang around in this game? Is the only way to do it to have a high-powered offense like Florida’s? What can you offer Irish fans to give them even a sliver of hope that this won’t be a total massacre?

Brent Taylor, Roll ‘Bama Roll: I’m going to expound on this a bit more in your third question, but the Alabama defense has definitely proven to be vulnerable. That said, nobody has come even close to slowing down the Alabama offense yet, and I don’t really expect the Irish to break that trend.

While I think Alabama has a massive advantage in terms of team speed at skill positions, Notre Dame’s offensive and defensive lines are some of the best in the country. So, if the Irish defensive front can keep Alabama from converting a few 3rd and shorts or get a goal line stand (especially with Alabama losing Remington finalist Landon Dickerson to a knee injury last week), and give Ian Book enough to time to scramble around and make some plays, then they could give the Tide a scare.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

2. What one or two guys on the Alabama offense do you think will have the biggest game vs. Notre Dame, and besides the 3 who finished in the Heisman Top 5, what other Crimson Tide players should Irish fans become familiar with prior to the game?

Also what can the Irish do defensively, if anything, to slow any of these guys down?

Brent Taylor: Of the big three on offense for Alabama, I think Najee Harris is going to have some tough sledding. I like the ND defensive line too much, and Najee, for all his other-worldly ability to break tackles, doesn’t quite have the game-breaking speed to outrace a defense to the sidelines.

DeVonta Smith, though, has been a dominant force of nature all season, nigh-uncoverable, and I have trouble seeing the Irish secondary being able to hang with him where the SEC defensive backs like LSU’s Derek Stingley could not.

Also watch out for TE Jahleel Billingsley. The sophomore only started really rotating into the starting lineup ⅔ of the way through the season, but he’s got an element of athleticism and after-the-catch dynamism that the rest of the Alabama tight ends do not. He’s been carving out a larger and larger role, and actually was given the kick return job out of the blue last week (and as fast as he is for a 240-lb TE, I’m still not exactly sure that’s in Alabama’s best interest going forward…but it highlights his ability nonetheless).

Sophomore John Metchie is the other main receiving threat for Alabama. He excelled as a deep threat early in the year, and has been working on more over-the-middle type routes in the last month. He’s a muscled-up speedster, though he’s good for about one drop per game.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

How to slow them down? Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not sure a college defense can. Mac Jones actually plays better against the blitz than he does with no pressure. He likes to throw it deep if you creep up to slow down Najee Harris, and he and Steve Sarkisian have shown staggering patience to hit a million little check-downs if you want to drop three safeties back like Arkansas tried.

But, if there’s one thing I can offer it’s this: Mac Jones is a high-emotion QB, and he’s excitable. In every big game this year, he’s airmailed some throws that should have been easy in the first drive or two of each half before settling in and ripping a defense apart. If the Notre Dame offense can get the ball first, score, and keep the game tied or slightly ahead, then I think that game situation could lead to some rather costly mistakes for Jones.

3. The Ole Miss and Florida games proved that this Alabama defense can be scored on — what are the strengths and weaknesses of Pete Golding’s crew, and how do you think the Irish offense matches up against them?

Do you think ND has the personnel/scheme to do some damage as well, or is their more physical, run-first offense going to struggle to move the ball?

Brent Taylor: Alabama’s really only faced two teams this season that tried a power run approach: Texas A&M and Georgia. Alabama totally bottled up the Aggies (though they did a lot of damage with downfield passes to the tight ends and running backs). Georgia did manage to move the ball up the middle, but were ultimately doomed by poor QB play. Alabama’s defensive line has improved in terms of toughness all season, but middle linebacker Dylan Moses continues to play very hesitant when taking on blockers after missing all of 2019 with an ACL tear.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama Mickey Welsh-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand, Ole Miss ran for a jillion yards with little outside zones, QB keepers, and fakes. The Alabama front seven has had some issues diagnosing play fakes all year, and they’ve had some struggles containing the edge on outside runs.

In terms of passing, cornerbacks Pat Surtain, Josh Jobe, and Malachi Moore have been phenomenal. Possibly the best trio of Nick Saban’s tenure. They did find themselves outmatched against Florida’s weapons… But nobody else in the nation has a Kyle Pitts or Kadarius Toney, so I’m not too worried there.

The safeties, though, have been the weak link. Jordan Battle is pretty solid, but he’s far from a star player. Daniel Wright has been a roller coaster that’s been close to the ground a lot more than he has been up high. He’s fast, tries to hit hard, and likes to try and undercut routes. Unfortunately, that means we see a LOT of him flying up like a blur to make a tackle and then continuing to fly off camera as he whiffs. And there’s been way too many coverage busts on tight ends or double moves deep going directly over him.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama The Montgomery Advertiser-USA TODAY Sports

What I’m saying is this: This Alabama defense has talent. They have a solid pass rush, a hefty (if inconsistent) interior line, and have a great trio of defensive backs. But if you want to move the ball on them, run some play fakes with the option of a QB keeper and keep running off tackle. Put your running back at wide receiver and send him downfield, and there’s a good chance the defense will think that’s not allowed and just collapse. And, finally, just keep throwing to your tight end.

4. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: Obviously the QB is always the most important position due to the nature of the position, but I think DeVonta is by far and away the most dominant and integral player. When Jaylen Waddle broke his ankle early in the season, Smith had to step up and carry the passing game almost on his own. On top of being absolutely uncoverable and tough to tackle, he wins a lot of jump balls, makes one-handed catches, and even started returning punts. Oh, and the most important thing to make the case for his value, to me, is how many times he’s played defensive back and broken up a pass that looked to be a surefire interception this year.

I had kind of been thinking we had about 2 more years left of Saban if he could grab one more national championship and take the record. But after his COVID week forced him to sit at home for the Auburn game, he came back and talked a lot in his interviews about how bored and frustrated he was. The man just might coach until he dies.

I do think his age has started to hit him a little the last few years, and his ability to adapt has been his greatest strength as a coach. He’s gone pretty much hands-off with the offense since 2018, and I think he’s probably going to have to turn over the defense to a fresh outside scheme soon. Ditto for in-game decision making. As a program manager, recruiter, and CEO, though, he’s the best in the business.

NCAA Football: SEC Championship-Alabama at Florida Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

5. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: Funny bit of trivia: Mac’s predecessor, Tua Tagovailoa, is known for setting all kinds of passing records with his left hand…except he’s actually right-handed. He just started throwing with his left in order to become a lefty baseball pitcher (I’m told baseball likes lefties for some reason. I personally know nothing about the sport), and went on to dominate college football with his off-hand.

So I’m sure Mac learned a bit from him, and might be saving it up for the second half.

6. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: You’re a little behind. Mac Jones is a system QB that only throws to wide open receivers. DeVonta Smith is only so wide-open because of Najee Harris. Harris only gets yards because his offensive line opens up 10-yard holes. And the offensive line is overrated anyway. The success sure can’t be because of the coordinator, since Sarkisian has been a failure everywhere else.

Alabama’s really only good because of all those 5-star recruits… As long as they’re a nebulous “five-star recruit” and not an actual player.

Got it? You’re basically a Twitter pro now.

7. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: We can’t even agree on if white Alabama BBQ sauce is different from the Carolina-base white sauce here. Mustard base? Sure. Vinegar? Also good. Mayo, ranch? Might as well. Just slap some sauce on a grilled chicken thigh and we’ll call it BBQ and argue over it. So, sure.

OC: Sarkisian, Kiffin……………… Locksley, McElwain, Daboll. I guess. Really just the first two.

DC: Pruitt, Smart. Nobody else. After Pruitt left, Alabama promoted Tosh Lupoi in 2018, and he was awful and got fired. Pete Golding took his spot, and the results have been less than stellar in two seasons.

8. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: You gonna argue with her?

9. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: Gonna assume he did…but after his mandated 24-hour rule to enjoy a win.

10. FAN QUESTION:

Brent Taylor: The first day, obviously. What else?

11. Fan Questions Asking for Advice on Watching the Game:

Brent Taylor: Only if you pull on the right strings in there. Gotta make sure you go full-coma. I’d hate to advise you go ahead and get one only to find out your eyes still work and your motor skills don’t so you’re stuck watching the game and can’t even leave the room.

Brent Taylor: I once tried to build a scale-up version of the Space Needle in Minecraft, and then my friend hosting that server accidentally deleted it right before I finished.

Haven’t played Minecraft since. Maybe you could build the Notre Dame chapel or something?

Brent Taylor: NyQuil. Can’t feel sick if you’re in a coma.

12. Alright, let’s finish this — who wins, what’s the score, and how do we arrive at that result?

Brent Taylor: I think Alabama wins this one by 3 scores, to be honest. Notre Dame’s defense is too slow and they don’t have the receiving weapons to stress the Alabama secondary quite like Florida.

I’ve said a bunch how much I like your defensive line, though, and I think they limit Alabama’s rushing success, forcing the Tide to live on big-play passes. Alabama jumps out to an early 14-point lead, and Notre Dame recovers to mostly stalemate things the rest of the way, but never enough to really get within striking distance. Final score 38-17

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BONUS CONTENT: PAT RICK PICKS HIS FAVORITE NAMES

Due to some of the...lacking...answers provided to me early in the season, and because asking this question every week is 75% just for me anyway, I chose to not bother Brent with this question and instead just give you my personal favorite names on the Crimson Tide roster.

  1. OL Alajujuan Sparks Jr.
  2. TE Major Tennison
  3. PK Tripp Slyman
  4. LB King Mwikuta
  5. DB DeMarcco Hellams
  6. DL Phidarian Mathis
  7. DL Ishmael Sopsher
  8. DL Jah-Marian Latham
  9. WR Jaylen Waddle
  10. LB Quandarrius Robinson
  11. OL Pierce Quick
  12. QB Stone Hollenbach
  13. WR Shatarius Williams
  14. DB Kristian Story
  15. OL Darrian Dalcourt
  16. OL Emil Ekiyor Jr.
  17. DL Landon Bothwell
  18. WR Slade Bolden
  19. DL DJ Dale
  20. DL Christian Barmore
  21. DB Christian Swann
  22. DB Jaylen Armour-Davis
  23. OL Tanner Bowles
  24. QB Braxton Barker
  25. TE Miller Forristall

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I wanna give a massive shout-out to Brent for answering all of our questions with really good detail and additional info I certainly didn’t know about the Crimson Tide — and I especially appreciate his thoughtful responses to all those great questions submitted by you, our loyal OFD army of Twitter followers.

Make sure you head over to Roll ‘Bama Roll to check out Brent’s work along with the rest of the crew, serving up any and all key insights you’ll need about the Irish’s CFP Semifinal opponent this week. You can even check out my ramblings answering Brent’s Q&A while you’re there!

Also, make sure to toss both the site and Brent some follows on Twitter — they’re excellent and entertaining folks and can provide you with any and all urgent updates on Alabama prior to Friday’s game.

That’s all for now, folks — GO IRISH, TRY NOT TO GET BLOWN OUT!!!!!!!!!