Two of college football’s storied programs will meet on Jan. 7 in the most-anticipated title matchup of the BCS era. For Alabama, a trip to the national championship has almost become routine. The Crimson Tide is making their third appearance in the BCS Championship in the last four seasons and are 2-0 under Nick Saban in this setting. Alabama is also looking to become the first back-to-back champion of the BCS era.
On the other sideline represents a return to glory. Notre Dame is back in a BCS bowl for the first time since 2007 and returned to the national title conversation for the first time since 1993 this year. The Fighting Irish was the only bowl eligible team to finish with an unbeaten record in 2012, while linebacker Manti Te’o finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting. After finishing 8-5 in back-to-back seasons, coach Brian Kelly has Notre Dame back on track to national prominence once again. The Fighting Irish are on a roll on the recruiting trail, so don’t expect Notre Dame to slip back into mediocrity anytime soon.
These two teams have met six times, with Notre Dame owning a 5-1 series edge. The Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish have not played since 1987, when Notre Dame claimed a 37-6 victory in South Bend. Alabama’s only victory against the Fighting Irish came in 1986.
BCS National Championship – Alabama (12-1) vs. Notre Dame (12-0)
Date and Time: Jan. 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Miami, Fla.
When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has the ball:
The Fighting Irish aren’t as dynamic as some of Brian Kelly’s offenses at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but this unit made steady progress over the last half of the season. After scoring more than 20 points twice through the first seven games, Notre Dame topped that mark in each of its final five contests.
Quarterback Everett Golson was a key factor in the late season improvement, finishing with seven touchdowns to just two interceptions over his final five games. Not only is Golson a threat to beat teams through the air, but his mobility could give Alabama’s defense plenty of headaches. The redshirt freshman rushed for 305 yards and five scores on 89 attempts this season. The Crimson Tide defense didn’t face a plethora of dual-threat quarterbacks in 2012 but struggled to contain Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in early November. Although Golson has delivered in some key spots this year, he doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards for Notre Dame to win this game. Efficiency and playing mistake-free ball are bigger issues for Golson and will be crucial for the Fighting Irish’s hopes at winning.
The Fighting Irish don’t have a standout wide receiver, but help is on the way for the matchup with Alabama. DaVaris Daniels missed the final two games of the season with a clavicle injury and should be able to contribute on Monday night. The redshirt freshman caught 25 passes for 375 yards in 10 games. TJ Jones and Robby Toma should be the other top targets for Notre Dame at wide receiver, but the No. 1 weapon for Golson will be tight end Tyler Eifert. The senior led the team with 44 receptions for 624 yards and four touchdowns and needs to have a standout performance against a tough Crimson Tide defense.
Led by a veteran offensive line, Notre Dame will challenge Alabama’s No. 1 ranked rush defense. The Irish ranked 29th nationally in rushing offense, spearheaded by the one-two punch of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. Riddick led the team with 880 yards and five rushing scores, while Wood wasn’t far behind, generating 740 yards and four touchdowns on 110 attempts. Look for both players to see action in Monday night’s game, but rushing lanes could be difficult to find with Alabama allowing only 79.8 yards on the ground each contest. The Crimson Tide held opponents to nine rushing touchdowns and 2.5 yards per carry.
Make no mistake: There’s no glaring weakness with Alabama’s defense. Although the Fighting Irish lean slightly with the run, they may need to pass early to setup the ground attack. The Crimson Tide’s defense allowed only two opponents to score more than 20 points and generated 2.5 sacks per game. With over a month to prepare for this game, expect Alabama’s defense and Notre Dame’s offense to each have a few new looks and wrinkles to throw at the opposition. Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly has done a good job at bringing the offense along this season, but this matchup against the Crimson Tide will be Notre Dame’s toughest assignment of this year.
When the Alabama Crimson Tide has the ball:
Despite breaking in a new offensive coordinator and losing running back Trent Richardson to the NFL, Alabama’s offense improved its points and yardage generated per game. The Crimson Tide also displayed balance, averaging 224.6 yards per game on the ground, while throwing for 214.5 per contest.
Quarterback AJ McCarron thrived under new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, throwing for 2,669 yards and 26 touchdowns. Additionally, the junior tossed only three picks and led the nation in passing efficiency. McCarron doesn’t have a deep group of proven receivers but there’s no shortage of weapons. True freshman Amari Cooper is one of the nation’s top rising stars at receiver, grabbing 53 receptions for 895 yards and nine scores this year. Cooper isn’t the only weapon for Alabama, as Kevin Norwood (26 catches), Christion Jones (25 catches) and tight end Michael Williams (21 catches) are all dependable targets. This group could get a boost in this game with the return of Kenny Bell. The junior suffered a broken leg against Auburn but has made a quick recovery and could play on a limited snap count against Notre Dame.
Although Alabama’s offense was balanced this year, there’s no question the success of this unit begins with the offensive line and rushing attack. The Crimson Tide’s front five is one of the nation’s best, allowing only 1.8 sacks a game and paving the way for running backs to generate 5.6 yards per carry. Center Barrett Jones suffered a foot injury against Georgia but is expected to play against the Fighting Irish.
Alabama’s offensive line faces a tough assignment on Monday night, as it looks to get a push against one of the nation’s top defenses. Notre Dame allowed only 92.4 rushing yards per game and held opponents to just two touchdowns on the ground. Jones’ battle against nose guard Louis Nix III could be one of the best one-on-one matchups of the bowl season, while the Fighting Irish rely on senior Kapron Lewis-Moore and sophomore Stephon Tuitt to lead the pass rush. In addition to the stout defensive line, senior linebacker and Heisman runner up Manti Te’o is a key presence in stopping the run.
Even if Alabama’s rushing attack struggles early, don’t expect Saban and Nussmeier to go away from handing the ball to Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Lacy and Yeldon combined for 2,182 yards and 27 rushing scores this year and each brings a different skill set to the offense. Lacy is more of a power runner, while Yeldon provides a home-run threat to the lineup.
Considering the defensive prowess on the Alabama and Notre Dame sideline, points could be at a premium in the BCS National Championship. The Crimson Tide has the edge on offense, especially at quarterback with the continued improvement of AJ McCarron. However, the Fighting Irish certainly won’t be intimidated by Alabama or the fact the SEC has won the last six national titles.
Will it be another national championship for the SEC? Or is Notre Dame ready to return to glory and win its first title since 1988?
Athlon’s editors make their pick for Monday night’s title game:
Alabama 17, ND 16
Alabama 27, ND 20
Alabama 20, ND 17
Alabama 24, ND 20
Alabama 23, ND 21
Alabama 17, ND 3
ND 20, Alabama 17
ND 17, Alabama 16
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
Manti Te'o, LB, ND
Manti Te'o, LB, ND