Two readers of the Update decided to contribute their previews for the game. Thank you Derry Herlihy & Jeff from Michigan
Notre Dame’s front 7 vs. Alabama run-game: Alabama has a physical, between the tackles run-game, that has been the keystone of the Tide’s offense this season. Notre Dame has the best run defense in the country, allowing just 2 rushing touchdowns all year. The tipping point of this contest may well be the matchup of Irish nose tackle Louis Nix III against Alabama center Barrett Jones, who has not practiced for much of the extended break due to an ankle injury. Jones will play in the game, but may have difficulty handling the 340-lb Nix and scraping off the nose tackle to pickup Manti Te’o at the next level.
Everett Golson vs. Alabama Defense: Notre Dame’s redshirt freshman QB has improved throughout the season, but will have his hands full with Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s defense. Golson has struggled against pressure this season, something he is certain to see in no small dose on Monday night. Alabama’s defense has struggled against mobile QB’s, however, and Golson is an elusive runner. Look for Brian Kelly to try and take some of the pressure off his young quarterback by moving the pocket. Notre Dame runs a spread no-huddle offense, but by design plays slower than most no-huddle teams, playing to the strength of it’s defense and run game. Brian Kelly’s offense does have a “Sonic” package, similar to Oregon’s “blur”, that the coach has used much more often in his prior 2 seasons. Alabama’s defense did not look weaker at any point this year than it did against the high tempo offense of Texas A&M. The Tide struggled to get lined up, set its personnel, and maintain discipline against the Aggies’ blazing tempo. With a month to prepare Golson, expect to see Brian Kelly call Notre Dame’s uptempo offense more in this game than any this season. Rest assured, the Irish have practiced fast from 2-a-days through this week, and they will play fast tonight.
Notre Dame’s Keys to Victory: Notre Dame must stop the run, and get a solid performance from Golson to win the crystal football. If Notre Dame’s massive defensive line of Louis Nix (340 lbs), Stephon Tuitt (300 lbs), and Kapron Lewis-Moore (300 lbs) can keep Alabama’s interior linemen off Te’o and ND’s backers, Alabama will not run the ball effectively. On offense, if Notre Dame can keep Bama’s defense off-balance with changes of tempo and Golson can play mistake-free, the dangerous Irish backfield tandem of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood should be able to make enough plays to move the ball on a Tide defense that has shown more than a couple moments of weakness this year.
Nick Saban is arguably the top coach in college football today, and happens to be one of the most divisive figures as well. His three national titles (one at LSU, two at Alabama) are well-known, as was his brief and relatively unsuccessful stint as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Perhaps less well known is his proclivity for over-signing, the practice of taking more scholarship players than allowed by NCAA bylaws. Technically his actions don’t violate any NCAA rules, but via hazy tactics such as ‘medical hardships’ and unnamed behavioral or academic issues leading to team dismissals, Alabama has consistently been able to sign about 7 more players per year than ND, cutting the ones that don’t pan out (see http://oversigning.com/testing/index.php/recruiting-numbers/ for the numbers and http://oversigning.com/testing/index.php/2012/02/04/darius-philon-signs-with-arkabama/ of a poignant yet perfectly legal tactic they have recently used, which technically wouldn’t fall under the oversigning label). Saban played defensive back at Kent State and maintains a reputation as a disciplined, sometimes humorless, detail-oriented (see: The Process) perfectionist. He and DC Kirby Smart consistently produce top defenses, while the other guy (no, I have no idea who he is either) at OC runs the ball and coaches his quarterbacks to simply not give games away.
WHEN THEY ARE ON OFFENSE
As far as offenses go, this one is about as pro-style as they come. Alabama prefers to line up across from you and run between the tackles out of single back sets. Then once your safeties and linebackers have gotten antsy and begin to cheat up to the line of scrimmage, they will hit you with PA passes. It’s not exciting, but it’s low-variance and due to vastly superior talent (oversigning, remember) it works more often than not.
On most offenses the leader of the team is the QB, but the nod here probably goes to Alabama’s all-everything center Barrett Jones, who headlines a positively star-studded offensive line. As a redshirt freshman, he started at right guard. He later moved to play left tackle for the tide, and now, obviously, he plays center. To describe him as versatile would be a massive understatement and he should grade out as one of the top OL in this year’s draft. He’s a little banged up following late season injury but he should be ready to go for the championship game according to the team. Flanking him are road-graders Chance Warmack at LG and Anthony Steen at RG. At LT is Cyrus Kouandjio and at RT is the man-mountain DJ Fluker, standing 6’6” and 335 pounds. They are top to bottom the best OL in the country and they will grind you down to pave way for their stable of backs.
Starting for Alabama, nominally, is Eddie Lacy, another RB in the long line of massive, speedy all-Americans and Heisman winners (recall Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram before him). At 6’0” 220lbs he’s obviously a power back, but he has a very shifty spin move that he will use to great effect on would-be tacklers. Behind him is my dark-horse Heisman pick for next year, TJ Yeldon. As a true freshman at 6’2” 216lbs he’s a truly massive back, and after watching him in the Michigan game I actually think he’s better already than Lacy. Yeldon had 1,000 yards on 154 attempts, just behind Lacy’s 1,182 yards on 184 carries.
Quarterback AJ McCarron is also quite talented, though will probably be asked to do less than the running game as I expect Saban to run a low variance, run first offense and lean on his defense to hold ND to very few points. He’s an upgrade from Alabama’s game managers of the recent past, and with 26 TDs to 3 INTs this season was an outside Heisman candidate. He protects the football and makes the throws he needs to make at the end of games, but if the running game can’t get it going he probably isn’t going to win the game for you. His favorite target is Amari Cooper, who has pitched in 9 TDs and 895 yards and represents a very talented and legitimate deep threat. Remarkably he’s a true freshman, so he and Yeldon will provide formidable threats at Alabama’s skill positions for years to come.
As mentioned I expect Saban to remain conservative and low variance, and establish the run with some PA passes mixed in. Notre Dame has an excellent front 7 but frankly nobody matches up in terms of talent with Bama’s offensive line.
WHEN THEY ARE ON DEFENSE
This is where the fun begins. Alabama’s defense leads the nation in fewest yards/game at 246 per. They actually have the 2nd best scoring defense behind – you guessed it – ND, at an insane 10.69 ppg. They are strong and conceptually sound against both the run and the pass and possess some of the most talented players in the country at multiple positions.
Alabama runs a traditional 3-4 base defense with 3 down linemen and 4 linebackers. Jesse Williams is their planetary nose-tackle who will be tasked with sitting in the middle of the line and sucking up double teams from the center and guards in order to keep his linebackers clean (think Vince Wilfork). At 6’4” 320lbs he’s a force to be reckoned with, and he reputedly can bench press 600 lbs (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/ncaaf-dr-saturday/alabama-lineman-bench-presses-600-pounds-171510300–ncaaf.html). He’s questionable with a knee injury suffered against Georgia – if he can’t go that is a huge plus for the ND interior line who would likely struggle against a player of his caliber. He’s flanked by two other large, talented DEs in Damion Square and Ed Stinson who act more like DTs than DEs, as they will also be tasked with clogging up running lanes and keeping their roving linebackers clean. The pass rushing duties actually fall mostly to the Jack linebacker in this defense, manned by Xzavier Dickson on the weak side of the formation. They have been rather uninspiring on the pass rush, which can be counted as probably their only statistical weakness this season.
The other three linebackers are Adrian Hubbard at Sam, Trey DePriest at Mike, and Nico Johnson at Will who all possess tremendous sideline to sideline speed and are exceptionally well coached on keys and tendencies (check out this video of them talking about their reads – it’s really cool stuff: http://gamedayr.com/gamedayr/alabama-linebackers-featured-on-espns-inside-the-program/). They are extremely fast, extremely agile, and difficult to confuse, so expect lots of running plays that net zero or 1 yards.
The secondary may be even better. Saban is traditionally a secondary guy and runs one of the more complex systems in the NCAA, known as zone pattern-reading. See http://www.xsosfootball.com/pattern-reading-101/ for a summary of pattern reading vs. spot dropping, but in summary it’s more complicated to teach but typically leaves fewer windows open for the quarterback. Saban’s safeties are well-coached and both highly touted, but their true standout is at CB. Dee Milliner at 6’1” 199lbs is large enough to press at the line but also possesses impressive straight line speed and very fluid hips. He was by far the most talented CB Michigan played against this year and will provide a serious headache for Everett Golson when they play.
MY COMPLETELY BIASED AND ALMOST CERTAINLY INCORRECT PREDICTION
How do you beat these guys? Quite simply, I’m not sure. Gus Malzahn did a nice piece for ESPN on how he did it (http://smartfootball.com/gameplanning/gus-malzahn-discusses-how-to-attack-nick-sabans-alabama-defense) but quite frankly Cam Newton ain’t walking through that door (not to mention, Brian Kelly, though talented, isn’t the offensive genius that Malzahn is). On defense I don’t expect Alabama to give up many points to the ND offense. ND has been uninspiring at best on offense, posting only 13 points at home against Michigan even after receiving 6 (!) turnovers, and only putting up only 20 on a hapless Purdue team. They certainly got better as the season wore on but Golson remains inexperienced and the ND O line is likely to be dominated by the ‘Bama front 7. This complex defense is utterly unforgiving, and it’s no coincidence that the one team that did put up points on them was the one quarterbacked by the Heisman Trophy winner. On offense I’m expecting Saban to run the ball up the gut into the teeth of the ND front 7, which is nearly as talented as ‘Bama’s. They’re not going to score a ton of points doing so, but this will lower the probability of costly turnovers and they can lean on their defense to not lose the game. Their only common opponent is Michigan, who Alabama crushed and ND limped past. Close calls against Purdue and Pitt don’t exactly inspire confidence either. Without some serious turnovers or huge special teams plays, I don’t see how ND will have a chance.
· Alabama wins, 24-13, in an extremely boring game
· Nick Saban hardly smiles during the crystal football presentation
· Brian Kelly turns purple at least once during the game
· They both immediately bolt for the NFL after the post-game pressers
· AJ McCarron cries (again)