About two months ago, my take on a then-hypothetical Alabama/Notre Dame game was that it would be a one-sided mudhole-stomping in favor of the Crimson Tide. But in the month since this traditionalist's dream matchup became reality, I've done a lot of film study on the Fighting Irish, and now...I'm not so certain, at all. Make no mistake, Alabama is more talented than Notre Dame by far, both in terms of their depth and their upper-limit of athleticism. However, the Irish present enough key matchup problems to make this one interesting and though Brian Kelly doesn't receive the same level of acclaim as an offensive "mastermind" as college football's other notable coaching Kelly, he's one of the best schemers in the game, and he has squeezed just about every point out of this group of players as is possible. His offense hasn't always looked pretty doing it, but couldn't you say the same thing about Nick Saban's defense at times this season? I wouldn't say he's on the same level as Saban, but if he pulls off the win Monday night, I may have to start. This is a premier matchup of offensive and defensive minds.
When you look at Notre Dame's personnel on offense, they have three real difference makers: Tyler Eifert, Everett Golson, and Theo Riddick. The rest of that unit, especially the receiving corps, is made up of complementary role players who have a difficult time making plays against good competition and probably wouldn't start at other top programs. But those three guys...they'll give you a headache. I probably don't need to spend much time talking about Eifert. The enormous problem he poses to anyone trying to cover him has been well documented by now. One thing that does stick out to me is how much of an impact he has blocking for the run game even when he's split out wide. In fact, on Cierre Woods' long TD run against Oklahoma, it's actually Eifert that springs him for the score, coming from his receiver spot to get a two-for-one block on a pair of Sooner defensive backs.
Riddick is another guy who'll make you pull your hair out. When you look at him purely as a running back, he doesn't "wow" you. He does the job well enough, but I don't think he does it any better than the aforementioned Woods. It's his versatility as a legitimate receiving threat that makes him special. With him on the field, the Irish can go into an empty set with him at wideout and not lose anything. Most backs who split out wide are just going to run an under or a clearout route, maybe a wheel if they can really catch. With Riddick, every route is on the table and he's matched up on a linebacker.
So here's the conundrum that Bama will face frequently on Monday night: Notre Dame comes out with two tight ends. Against most teams, this would put them in their power run look (which ND actually is pretty good at), and Bama would respond with it's base 3-4 personnel. But instead, the Irish go to an empty set with two legit receiving threats at TE and RB out wide. How do Saban and Kirby Smart respond to that?
To further complicate the situation, how do you adequately cover those guys out of your base personnel while also containing, let alone getting pressure on, Everett Golson? Watching Golson reminds me a bit of watching Johnny Manziel. Golson isn't in Manziel's league (yet), but towards the end of the season, Kelly was using him in a similar way: snap it to him in the shotgun, then let him run around and make something happen. Like Texas A&M, Notre Dame calls fewer QB runs than you'd think, but they do call a lot of bootlegs and sprint-outs to give Golson a run/pass option and sort of "bait" the defense into breaking down and chasing him.
The game really boils down to one matchup, Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix vs. Bama center Barrett Jones. Manti Te'o gets all the accolades, but Louis Nix is the best player on the Irish defense. I don't want to come down too hard on the guy, because he is a great linebacker...he's just not a complete linebacker. Te'o actually reminds me of Georgia's Alec Ogletree, plus about 15 pounds, minus a couple tenths of a second on his 40-yard dash. He's good in coverage, great at chasing down the ball sideline to sideline, and terrific at shooting gaps in the run game. But if you can get a big body up on him at the second level, he can't get off. He's very block able if you can control the line well enough to get guys up to him. It's Nix's dominance that allows Te'o to be Te'o.
Notre Dame will do everything in their power to stay in their base 3-4 personnel, for two main reasons. First, they simply don't have a lot of faith in their corners beyond the top two guys. Over the course of the season, they've preferred to stay in base as much as possible. There were times against Oklahoma where they played with four linebackers against a four-wide set. If they didn't change for OU's wide-open passing game, they definitely won't for Bama. Secondly, the Irish feel they have a significant advantage with Nix playing heads-up over Jones, who has been nursing a nagging foot injury since the first half of the SEC championship game. While there is no doubt Jones will play, exactly how effective he can be, or if he'll even be able to stay on the field for the whole game, is something of an unknown. My feelings are that if Jones could play well enough against John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers for the Tide to run for over 300 yards on the night that he suffered the injury, he should be up to the task a month later. f he's good enough to just play even with Nix, with a little help from his buddies Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen, that should be good enough for Bama to execute on offense.
I think Alabama can run against Notre Dame's base defense, but I expect Bama to test the athleticism of the Irish back seven early and often. We'll see how well those linebackers can chase around Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, and Kevin Norwood. Maybe even Kenny Bell, if the chatter from players is true (I bet it's not). Despite what some Notre Dame fans might have you believe, they did not do a great job handling Oklahoma's athleticism on the perimeter in that game. It was the Sooner's inability to run the ball when needed (a flaw Bama does not have) and their insistence upon doing Oklahoma things that cost them that game. If Bama is able to successfully burn ND's base defense, the Irish will have a choice: move to their Nickel personnel, losing the advantage of Nix over center, taking their chances with their lesser DB's, and leaving a softer front for the Tide to run against; or stay in base but start dialing up more blitzes leaving themselves vulnerable to further gashing. That's a tough choice.
And this is the conundrum that Alabama presents the Notre Dame defense: How do you matchup with a team that plays as physical as Stanford but also has the skill position athletes you'd find at Oklahoma?
Ultimately, I think, unless Barrett Jones' foot falls off, Alabama just has an answer for whatever Notre Dame shows them on defense. I'm not saying Bama is going to blow them out. I'm just saying that whatever number Notre Dame manages to put on the board, Bama will find a way to post a bigger one. To borrow a Saban buzzword, this team has great "competitive character." I'll probably take some crap for this, but I truly believe that if not for that offsides penalty on that punt against A&M, Alabama would have found a way to win that game. This is easily the least talented of the three Tide teams that have played for the BCS championship. There are times when you watch this defense and you would never guess that it's one of the best statistical defenses in the country. No matter what happens, they just play the next play, the OL keeps pounding, AJ McCarron just keeps slinging the ball down the field, the defense bows up when it absolutely has to, and they find a way to win. Except that one time. If they kill themselves with penalties, miscues, and turnovers (do Oklahoma things), that could happen again. But I'm betting they pull another one out and win another National Title.
PREDICTION: ALABAMA 30, NOTRE DAME 20