Coffee in hand I greet the new year and sit down to write my final Notre Dame football preview of the year, Notre Dame vs. Alabama.
Notre Dame football, with a 12-0 season, once again returns to college football relevance and heads to the national title game for the first time in 24 years. But does a young and inexperienced team like Notre Dame have what it takes to beat a battle-tested defending national title team like Alabama? Alabama has been in this national spotlight before and knows exactly what it takes to win the big game.
No. 1 ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama will answer all of our questions in Miami on January 7 in a dream matchup for the national title that has the college football world on the edge of its seat.
Many comparisons have been made between this year’s Notre Dame squad and the 1988 ND team which was the last to bring the crystal football home to South Bend. In 1988 the undefeated ND squad beat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to bring home the national title. This year’s team will attempt to match that same feat.
There is something magical about a coach’s third year at Notre Dame. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national titles during their third year as a head coach at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly, in his third season at ND will attempt to join this storied list of national championship winning coaches.
“The tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame brings special attention to it, but we’re just trying to be the best team on Monday, Jan. 7,” Kelly, the AP coach of the year and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award winner, told the media.
“All of that tradition, what’s happened in the past, is not going to help us Jan. 7, but we do respect the traditions.”
The fact that Notre Dame has made it to the national title game this year is quite a surprise, even to the Notre Dame faithful. Many alumni and fans didn’t think this day would come again anytime soon after suffering through rough patches with coaches Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Coach Brian Kelly didn’t have the most magical of starts either, losing games on controversial calls, with defeats at the hands of Tulsa and South Florida being at the top of that list.Even with the Cinderella season that Notre Dame had it still looked like they would be shut out of the championship game, needing losses from both Kansas State and Oregon in order to jump in the BCS standings. This seemed like a scenario that was too much to ask for, but amazingly enough the stars aligned and the unthinkable became reality. The Kansas State Wildcats got routed by the Baylor Bears, followed by an Oregon Ducks upset at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal. The number one sign was once again lit up on top of Grace hall and with a win over Southern California the following week the Irish are headed to Miami to try and make history one more time.
Does the Irish defense have what it takes to stop Alabama and their SEC speed?
“Well, that’s who we are,” said Kelly, whose team won six times by nine or fewer points. “It’s been our defense all year. Our offense is able to manage enough points.”
When the Irish defense takes the field on Jan. 7 keep your eyes on Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o. He will be a significant factor in Notre Dame’s ability to stop Alabama’s running game. The senior linebacker has had seven interceptions and 103 tackles this year, and has proved to be the heart and soul of this Irish squad.
“We’re going to fight,” Te’o said after the USC win. “That’s our name. It doesn’t matter where we are.”
Te’o will have plenty of help from his fellow teammates, on a defense that is loaded with leaders and playmakers. Stephon Tuitt had 12 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, Prince Shembo had 7 1/2 sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for loss and senior captain Kapron Lewis-Moore contributed six sacks and 8 1/2 tackles for loss.
Notre Dame’s defense led the country this season with 10.3 points allowed per game and was ranked sixth nationally in the FBS with 288.1 yards. With the 303-pound Tuitt and 326-pound nose tackle Louis Nix up front, the Irish may be one of the few teams with a defensive line that can match up with the powerful Alabama offensive line anchored by All-American center Barrett Jones.
Alabama’s (12-1) national title hopes were also hanging in the balance earlier this season after being upset 29-24 by then-No. 15 ranked Texas A&M on Nov. 10. The timely losses by Kansas State and Oregon, though, pushed the Crimson Tide into the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings on Nov. 18.
They held the No. 2 spot by winning their last three games including having to come from behind to beat Georgia 32-28 in the SEC championship game on Dec. 1. With the Tide down by 11, the Irish faithful almost saw Georgia take Alabama’s place in the national title game but the Crimson Tide proved once again that their veteran leadership knows how to win the big games.
As decisive and powerful as the Irish have been on defense, Alabama has been equally as tough if not better. Alabama was ranked second this season behind Notre Dame with 10.7 points allowed per game and ranked first with 246.0 yards per contest. The Crimson Tide staunch defense recorded 34 sacks, 81 tackles for loss and 17 interceptions.
“I … couldn’t be prouder of what this team has accomplished this season,” Saban said. “We had a young team coming back … and for this team now to have a chance to go back to the national championship game is a little unprecedented.
“They could have taken the idea that ‘Hey, we won it last year, we can take it easy this year,’ but this team made a commitment, did a lot of hard work. It’s a challenge that the coaches accepted and the players accepted, and I just can’t be prouder of a group of guys.”
While the Alabama – Notre Dame matchup could prove to be a low scoring game given the defensive prowess of these teams, Alabama’s offense definitely has an experience advantage over the Notre Dame offense lead by a red shirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson.
Alabama’s 38.5 points per game ranks them 15th in the FBS. Led by sophomore tight end Corey McCarron (26 touchdowns, three interceptions, 173.1 passer rating) and with a ground attack that boasts two 1,000-yard rushers in junior running back Eddie Lacy and freshman running back T.J. Yeldon, the Irish defense will need to be nearly perfect the slow down the Tide offense. The two Alabama backs ran for 27 TDs. The Tide had 10 400 yards games and topped 500 yards four times.
The Crimson Tide had an impressive 512 yards against the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC championship contest, rushing for a season-high 350 yards.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, has a very young offensive unit lead by freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Golson has done an impressive job this season of running the Notre Dame offense despite his lack of experience. The red shirt freshman threw for 2,135 yards and 11 scores with only five interceptions (131.8 rating) while also rushing for 305 yards and five touchdowns.
Notre Dame’s run-heavy offense was led this year by senior running backs Theo Riddick (880 yards rushing) and Cierre Wood (740). Their veteran experience helped push Notre Dame to the 11th spot in the nation in time of possession at 32 minutes, 34 seconds per game. The Irish averaged 202.5 rushing yards per game.
The Fighting Irish and the Crimson tide have each won eight AP national titles, more than any other college football programs. As college football fans await the meeting of these two storied teams they can only hope the game brings the drama that came the last time they met for a championship. In 1973 a Parseghian-led Irish squad met a Bear Bryant-led Crimson Tide and Notre Dame hung on to beat Alabama by a score of 24-23 in the 1973 Sugar Bowl to win the AP title.
The Irish and the Tide have met six times, five of which have been won by Notre Dame. The last meeting came in 1987, when the Irish rolled the Tide 37-6.
Here come the Irish …