SEC…SEC… The South will embrace Alabama, competing for the SEC’s seventh consecutive BCS Title. They have been embracing the Tide for years, as “SEC dominance” has, with a few exceptions, meant “Alabama dominance” since Nick Saban got rolling. This could be the Alabama senior class’ third national title, making them the first four-year class to do that since Notre Dame ’49. That’s despite losing Trent Richardson and others to the NFL Draft. Credit Nick Saban’s acquisition and retention policies.
An Alabama win would sustain the SEC dominance balloon. An Alabama loss would puncture it. The title run would not just end. It would end to Notre Dame, the glimmering beacon of northern media bias. Combine that with Florida pooping itself in the Sugar Bowl against a Big East Team, with LSU losing to Clemson, with Mississippi State bowing down to Northwestern and with South Carolina sweating bullets against Michigan. Fairly or not, people would be talking.
Where Decadent Salaries Are Earned… Nick Saban and Brian Kelly are two estimable coaches. One is a defensive mastermind. The other has done some great things on offense while recognizing the importance of defensive line recruiting. They have both have had success, though on different scales.
Saban is coaching for his fourth national title and his third in four seasons at Alabama. Kelly has never coached in a BCS game, but worked miracles where they seemed improbable. He built Grand Valley State into a Division-II juggernaut. He built Central Michigan from a perennial loser to a MAC winner. He qualified Cincinnati for a BCS Game. He has brought irrelevant Notre Dame to the BCS Title Game. There is no clear aptitude advantage, though a shock result, after weeks to prepare, may uncover one.
Neither coach seems headed for the NFL next season, though the Browns are still looking for a coach…
National Championships: Alabama and Notre Dame are two of college football’s most prestigious programs. They claim 25 national titles between them. A few of them, notably Alabama’s 1941 team, seem a tad dubious.
Common Opponent: Both teams played Michigan early. Alabama obliterated the Wolverines 41-14, overpowering them on both sides of the ball. Notre Dame, faced a more composed Michigan defensively to be fair, though they conceded both lines of scrimmage, got out-gained and, despite being gifted six turnovers, escaped with only a 13-6 win at home. This Irish team developed as the wins accumulated, though that disparity is worth noting.
When Alabama Has The Ball: Notre Dame’s defensive front vs. Alabama’s offensive line. If these are not the nation’s two best fronts, they are in that discussion. The key matchups will be Alabama’s venerated center Barrett Jones, still wearing a boot on his foot, against big Louis Nix III and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio against transplanted SEC player Stephon Tuitt. (Expect those two to meet again in the Top 10 of the 2014 NFL Draft.)
Alabama has the nation’s strongest power run game, but they face a Notre Dame defense that allowed just two rushing touchdowns in 2012 and gave up 100 total yards and four yards per carry in the same game once. The best way to open holes may be forcing Notre Dame to respect the pass. That leads us to A.J. McCarron.
McCarron ranked second nationally in passer rating, but that should be qualified further. Alabama played three competitive games in their final five: LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. Their quarterback looked very average in all three games, where he threw all three of his interceptions. Not coincidentally, Alabama lost to Texas A&M and nearly lost to LSU and Georgia. McCarron could knock Notre Dame out of this game. He could also keep them in it. Alabama will hope he channels his off-the-field form.
When Notre Dame Has The Ball: This clash will send fewer sparks flying, though both fronts are quite solid. Alabama has the nation’s top performing run defense, allowing just 2.46 yards per carry. Only Texas A&M and Georgia even dented them enough to average three yards per carry. Notre Dame’s running game burgeoned over the final eight games, but they don’t have a Todd Gurley-type to power his way through Alabama on the ground. To win, the Irish must make plays through the air.
Alabama’s secondary can be beaten. Tyler Eifert presents an almost impossible matchup for a college defense. The question is what sort of performance Kelly can cajole from quarterback Everett Golson. He’s a freshman. He was managed throughout 2012. His passing numbers were not stellar. That said, he’s mobile and he has displayed a knack for turning it on in big moments. He should improve with experience and intensive coaching, but we can’t see him (or pretty much anyone) executing on Manziel’s level.
Key Stat: Alabama ranked 16th nationally, scoring a touchdown 71.9 percent of the time it entered the red zone. Notre Dame ranked 119th, scoring a touchdown just 46.6 percent of the time.
Prediction: Trends collide. Alabama outlasted high-caliber opponents, muscling their way down the field for a late touchdown drive (not converted against A&M). Notre Dame hung around against top opponents with its defense keeping games brutish and low-scoring. They earned the “team of destiny” moniker, always seeming to get that one play from the offense or Manti Te’o to put them ahead.
The Tide have more game-breaking talent, better depth to wear down Notre Dame for 60 minutes and a track record of executing better, especially on offense. Everyone unaffiliated will root for an exciting game. Notre Dame winning would be a great story. We just don’t see any tangible evidence for it happening. [Pick: Alabama -9.5]
[Photos via USA Today Sports]