By Stephen Evans
#2 Alabama vs #1 Notre Dame
Jan. 7 – 7:30PM – ESPN
It’s a battle of college football blue-bloods, and while many college football fans are still not convinced that the championship game will, in fact, feature the two best teams in America, after looking at this season’s lame slate of BCS game offerings, let’s just be thankful we got the match-up that we did.
So, it will be the team that all of the SEC loves to hate against the team that most of America loves to hate in the stadium that South Florida apparently hates, if you’ve seen the attendance at Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes football games lately.
Putting emotions about the participating teams aside, the Alabama-Notre Dame championship game at least presents a compelling contest.
Make no mistake; Notre Dame enters the game as the unquestioned underdog. The Crimson Tide opened as a 7.5 – 10 point favorite, depending on your betting service of choice. But for anyone who thinks this game will be an Alabama cakewalk, take a closer look inside the match-ups.
This isn’t your typically dominant SEC champion. This Alabama team, while still tough and talented, isn’t last year’s Alabama squad and isn’t as good as the 2009 national champion Tide team, both of which were led by tenacious defenses that shut down opponents. Against the elite opponents it has played this season (read LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia), Alabama has surrendered an un-Nick Saban-like 1,247 yards, including 830 yards through the air. As a comparison, against the three toughest opponents the 2011 national championship Alabama team played, the Tide surrendered just 557 total yards, 353 of which came through the air.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame enters the game as the most underrated postseason No. 1 team in the BCS era. But don’t sleep on the Fighting Irish. Brian Kelly’s team relies on a powerful defensive front (sound familiar SEC fans?) that has led the way through a tough schedule. Though not a murderer’s row, ten of the twelve teams Notre Dame beat are bowl eligible (though Miami has decided to self-impose a bowl ban), and the other two teams on the schedule are from BCS conferences. Against that schedule Notre Dame allowed just ten defensive touchdowns. No other team in major college football allowed fewer than 17, which sets up a strength verses strength match-up when the Alabama offense and Notre Dame defense are on the field.
Alabama flexed its mauling offensive muscle against Georgia in the SEC championship game, compiling 512 yards of total offense, including 350 yards on the ground. Every time it needed a little, it gained a lot, and it seemed like there was nothing Georgia could do to stop it.
Will Notre Dame suffer the same fate? Nose guard Louis Nix clogs the middle of the Notre Dame defense and will be a force for the Alabama offensive line to contain. Nix also keeps blockers off of Heisman Trophy candidate linebacker Manti Te’o, allowing him to roam around and make plays all over the field. But Georgia had an All-American linebacker and future first round draft pick of its on in Jarvis Jones, and play-after-play the Tide had a scheme to contain him. We’ll see if they can keep Te’o bottled up in a similar fashion.
Finally, it’s the pride of the SEC coming face-to-face with one of the proudest programs in college football history during a time of great resurgence. An Alabama win gives the SEC its seventh consecutive national championship and an even tighter grip in its claim as college football’s undisputed king. Notre Dame has suffered through the Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis eras during the past two decades, leaving the program’s glory years a hazy memory. They believe they have found the savior in Brian Kelly, and an upset win in the championship game will forever imprint Kelly’s legacy in Irish eyes.
Despite what these two programs have accomplished in the past, none of that will matter once all of the pregame hype comes to an end and the ball is teed up in Miami. And while this Alabama team may not be the dominant force it has been in previous seasons, it is battle tested, with come-from-behind wins away from home against LSU and Georgia, two top 10 opponents. That doesn’t bode well for the Irish, who very well may land a few jabs against Alabama’s modern-day Goliath of a program. But in the end, it’s difficult to imagine Notre Dame coming up with enough jabs, or round house rights for that matter, to knock out the defending champions.