College football’s playoff for the 2020-21 season kicks off on Friday with Notre Dame taking on Alabama in the Rose Bowl game that was moved to Arlington, Texas, due to COVID-19 concerns. The Crimson Tide cruised to an 11-0 record and ranked as the No. 1 team in the CFB Playoff following a win over Florida in the SEC title game. The Fighting Irish ranked No. 2 through most of the rankings by the committee but slipped to No. 4 after losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
This is the seventh season of the CFB Playoff setup, and Alabama has made appearances in six years. The Crimson Tide missed out on a trip last fall after losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale but is back for revenge in 2020. Under Nick Saban’s watch, Alabama lost its first playoff trip in the 2014-15 season but is 6-3 overall in the four-team championship. The Crimson Tide have won five national titles since 2009 and have not lost more than two games in a season since ’10. Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa started with teams leaning on strong defenses to win, but the focus has shifted to dynamic offenses the last couple of years. That group was the strength of the 2020 team, as quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and receiver DeVonta Smith powered a group that averaged 49.7 points per contest. Alabama closed the regular season by scoring at least 52 points in four out of its final five games and just one contest was decided by less than 15 points.
Notre Dame is back in the CFB Playoff for the second time in three years under coach Brian Kelly. The Fighting Irish made the BCS Championship Game in the 2012 season but didn’t return to the national title conversation until ’18. Notre Dame went 12-1 in ’18 but was dominated 30-3 by Clemson. Kelly’s team finished a solid 11-2 last fall but returned to the four-team championship with a 10-1 mark in ’20. En route to a 10-0 start, the Fighting Irish defeated Clemson 47-40 in double overtime and knocked off North Carolina 31-17 in late November. However, Kelly’s team was soundly defeated 34-10 by Clemson in the ACC Championship Game to drop to 10-1.
Notre Dame holds a 5-2 series edge over Alabama. The Crimson Tide won the last meeting 42-14 in the BCS National Championship, with the Fighting Irish winning the previous matchup in 1987.
Rose Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Alabama (CFB Playoff Semifinal)
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 1 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
Spread: Alabama -20
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
It’s no secret Notre Dame is a huge underdog. Coach Brian Kelly’s team will need a complete all-around and perfect effort to pull off the upset in Arlington against the No. 1 team in college football. With the firepower the Crimson Tide will bring to the field on Friday, the Fighting Irish can give their defense a little help by possessing the ball and maximizing every possession. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has delivered a strong debut calling the plays, as Notre Dame averaged 35.2 points a game and 6.4 yards per snap this season. This unit also led the ACC in third-down conversions (49.7 percent), lost only 10 turnovers in 11 games, and paced the conference in time of possession (nearly 34 minutes a contest).
For the Fighting Irish to pull off the upset, winning the battle up front is where those hopes start. The front five has allowed only 23 sacks in 2020 and is clearing the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per carry. Tackle Liam Eichenberg and guards Aaron Banks and Tommy Kraemer earned first-team All-ACC honors this year, while tackle Robert Hainsey earned second-team accolades. Center Jarrett Patterson was lost for the year due to injury, and backup Zeke Correll did not play against Syracuse or Clemson. His health is worth monitoring, especially after the offense mustered only 44 rushing yards on 30 carries in the ACC Championship Game. Getting the ground attack on track would allow Notre Dame’s offense to control the pace of the game and keep Alabama’s offense on the sideline. Running back Kyren Williams has posted 1,061 yards and 12 scores on 195 attempts this fall. The redshirt freshman is the go-to back, but Chris Tyree (480 yards) and C’Bo Flemister (299) will provide help.
The trenches and the success of the ground game are likely to play the biggest role in determining whether or not Notre Dame can win. However, quarterback Ian Book also has to make a handful of plays through the air. The senior has connected on 64 percent of his passes for 2,601 yards and 15 touchdowns this fall. Book doesn’t make many mistakes (two INTs on 314 attempts) but has only 14 completions of 30 yards or more. Additionally, 148 of Book’s 201 completions have taken place behind the line of scrimmage to 10 yards downfield. Javon McKinley (40 catches), Ben Skowronek (25), Avery Davis (23), and tight ends Michael Mayer (35) and Tommy Tremble (19) have to find ways to get open in the middle of the field but also must connect with Book on a few big plays.
This isn’t a vintage shutdown Alabama defense, but Saban’s group still leads the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (19.5) and ranks second in the conference in fewest yards per play allowed (5.04). The Crimson Tide are first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, are holding teams to 3.2 yards per carry, and have generated 32 sacks in 11 games. This defense has been a little vulnerable to big plays through the air (11 of 40 yards or more) but only one team (Ole Miss) has run for more than 146 yards in 2020. If Alabama can win the battle up front and limit Notre Dame’s ground game, obvious third-and-long situations would be a winning formula for Saban’s defense.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Alabama’s offense shredded the SEC for an average of 7.83 yards per play and 49.7 points a game. This unit was held under 40 points just one time (38), which also came in the opening game after an unusual offseason. Outside of that contest, the Crimson Tide have scored at least 41 points in every contest and closed the regular season by posting 52 or more points in four out of the last five matchups. Just like Notre Dame, Alabama’s offensive line has been one of the best in college football. This unit is a finalist for the Joe Moore Award (awarded to the nation’s top OL) but won’t have standout center Landon Dickerson due to an injury suffered in the SEC Championship Game. With Dickerson out, Chris Owens (69 snaps in 2020) or Darrian Dalcourt (28) is likely to get the call at the pivot. Dickerson is a big loss, but Owens and Dalcourt should keep this unit performing at a high level.
Stopping Alabama’s high-powered offense isn’t limited to just one facet. Under coordinator Steve Sarkisian, this group can pound teams with a standout offensive line and a deep backfield led by Najee Harris. If teams load up the box to stop the run, Sarkisian can let quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith land big play after big play through the air. Considering no defense has managed to hold Alabama under six yards a play this fall, to put it mildly, Notre Dame is going to have its hands full on Friday. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea accepted the Vanderbilt head-coaching job but will remain with the team through the playoff run. Lea has been an outstanding coordinator for Kelly and leads a defense that is holding teams to 18.6 points a game and 5.4 yards per play. But make no mistake: Alabama represents the toughest opponent Notre Dame has faced in 2020.
Harris enters the CFB Playoff with 1,262 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground. The senior gashed Florida for 178 yards in the SEC title game and posted three more receiving scores through the air. Harris has been a valuable receiver out of the backfield, as he’s posted 32 catches for 316 yards. Notre Dame’s defense held its first nine opponents to 153 yards or less on the ground. However, this unit showed some cracks in the final two matchups, as Syracuse rushed for 229 yards, and Clemson posted 219 in the ACC title game.
Jones has been nearly flawless all season in his first season as the starter. The Florida native is completing 76.5 percent of his throws for 3,739 yards and 32 touchdowns to just four picks. When Jones drops back, it’s no secret Smith (98 catches for 1,511 yards and 17 touchdowns) is the No. 1 target. Notre Dame’s secondary can counter with a secondary that ranks No. 2 in the ACC in pass efficiency defense, but Clemson had no trouble finding success in the conference title game. The Fighting Irish have 30 sacks this season and have to find ways to create pressure or throw different looks at Jones to slow down the rhythm and big-play ability of this offense. And if Lea finds a way to contain Smith, John Metchie III (44 catches), Slade Bolden (19), and Jahleel Billingsley (12) will create plenty of problems for this defense.
With Alabama’s firepower and track record this year, Notre Dame has to find ways to get off the field on third downs and win in the red zone. Completely shutting down the Crimson Tide’s offense is unlikely, so bending a little and trading yards for stops inside the red zone would be a win for the Fighting Irish.
Alabama has been the best team in college football this season and has outscored its last four opponents in the CFB Playoff semifinal by a combined score of 131-47. The Crimson Tide simply have too much firepower on offense, and while the defense has been vulnerable at times, this is a tough draw for Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish need to force a couple of takeaways, play keep away from Alabama’s offense by winning the battle in the trenches and establishing the run, while also limiting the big plays by Jones, Smith and Harris. It’s not impossible but succeeding in that formula for all four quarters is unlikely. The Crimson Tide cruise to an easy CFB Playoff win once again and book a trip to Miami on Jan. 11 to play for the national title.
Prediction: Alabama 45, Notre Dame 17
Podcast: Complete Breakdown and Predictions for CFB Playoff Semifinals