By now you’ve read all the hyperbole, you’ve had your fill of tradition vs. history, and you’ve considered the ramifications of a hypothetical cage match between Touchdown Jesus and the Houndstooth of the Baskervilles.
So we here at The Good In Sports are going to break it down nice and easy for you, and give you five reasons why each team will win. Then, we’ll – OK, I (because I don’t presume to speak for everyone) – will give a prediction and tell you why. But you have to read the rest of the column first.
First up, the contender – Alabama.
1) A.J. McCarron. The quarterback has been in the spotlight before. Last year, in fact, when he led the Tide to the national championship and was named most outstanding player. In two years as a starter, McCarron has compiled a 24-2 record, and this year he’s thrown for 2,669 yards on a team with two 1,000-yard rushers (more on those guys in a bit). He’s second in the nation in passing efficiency (173.08) and has tossed 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
2) Special teams. This is a Nick Saban specialty. Alabama ranks in the top 40 nationally in punt return yardage and kick return yardage. What’s so impressive about that? Well, on the surface not much – until you play the “relative to Notre Dame” game. The Irish rank outside the top 80 in each category, likely giving Alabama a formidable advantage in field position.
3) Those running backs. Junior Eddie Lacy rushed for a career-high 181 yards in the SEC championship game, giving him 1,182 on the season. Freshman T.J. Yeldon is no slouch either, as he piled up exactly 1,000 yards.
4) That offensive line. Guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones get all of the accolades, but the entire line is beastly, with tackles Cyrus Kouandijo and D.J. Fluker and guard Anthony Steen throwing their considerable weight around as well to open the holes for Lacy and Yeldon, and giving McCarron all the time he needs. You’ll see all five of these linemen play in the NFL someday, and Warmack and Jones are likely Top 10 picks
5) The fourth quarter. You better get a lead in the first three frames, otherwise the game is pretty much over. Against their 12 FBS foes this year, Alabama held the ball for an average of nine minutes per game in the fourth quarter. With Lacy and Yeldon grinding it out, teams find it difficult to come from behind if they don’t have the ball. Duh.
Reasons Notre Dame Will Win
1) Red Zone Defense: The Irish have given up the lowest percentage of red zone touchdowns of any FBS team over the past NINE YEARS, at just 24.2%. They allowed eight red zone touchdowns this year, yet forced five red zone turnovers. The Irish have defended against 39 goal-to-go plays this year – and have given up minus-5 yards. Of note – of McCarron’s three interceptions this year, two have come on goal-to-go plays.
2) Remember Alabama’s all-world offensive line we talked about? It has had some issues this year, most notably against Western Kentucky, which managed six sacks. Georgia sacked McCarron three times, while Texas A&M, Florida Atlantic, Michigan, Mississippi State, and Missouri each notched two sacks. And not one of those teams has defenders the caliber of DL Louis Nix III or LB Manti Te’o.
3) Ah yes, Nix and Te’o. This is perhaps the best lineman-linebacker combination in all of college football – and perhaps some pro teams as well. You’ve heard all about Te’o – the Heisman finalist, All American, winner of the Walter Camp Player of the Year, Nagurski Award, Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, Lott Trophy, Maxwell Award and Lombardi Award. He’s more Johnny Football than that kid down at A&M. But don’t forget about Nix. The 330-poound nose guard will give Barrett Jones all he can handle, and more.
4) They are smart. The Irish are ranked No. 1 by both major polls, and they are also ranked No. 1 in the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate – the first college football team to accomplish that in the BCS era. What does this have to do with on-the-field action? Well, not much admittedly, but it’s a pretty cool fact that you all should know about.
5) Unpredictable offense. Notre Dame doesn’t have many household names on offense…yet. But that’s a good thing. With coach Brian Kelly’s strategizing and QB Everett Golson’s emergence as a true dual-threat QB, the Irish come at you from a variety of formations. TE Tyler Eifert is the best in the country and causes matchup problems for any defensive player; WR Theo Riddick lines up at a different place on the field on every play; RB Cierre Wood is sneaky fast; and Gholson is much more comfortable now than he was at the start of the season, when he was looking over his shoulder for a lurking Tommy Rees to enter the game.
Finally, for those who believe in numerology, the key number for this game is three. Nick Saban is going for his third National Championship in four years (and fourth overall); while Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all won national titles in their third year at Notre Dame. This is Brian Kelly’s third year.
What does it all mean? We won’t know for sure until tonight, under the lights, and we see just how Golson reacts to being on a stage the likes of which he’s never seen before. Or we see just how Barrett Jones, who as recently as four days ago was still wearing a boot on his left foot – injured in the first quarter of the SEC championship against Georgia.
Regardless of how it plays out, there is some serious history at stake tonight. And when the dust settles, Notre Dame will walk off the field with a 20-17 win and a national championship.