WHEN NOTRE DAME RUNS THE BALL
The Irish rotate three backs: seniors Theo Riddick (5-11, 200), Cierre Wood (6-0, 215) and sophomore George Atkinson (6-1, 210). Since being held to 52 yards at Purdue and 94 yards at Michigan in the first month of the season, Notre Dame has averaged 233.6 yards a game. The offensive line features two All-Americans in left tackle Zack Martin (6-4, 304) and center Braxton Cave (6-3, 304). But the Irish will be facing the nation’s No. 1 run defense, led by defensive end Damion Square (6-3, 286) and linebackers Nico Johnson (6-3, 245) and C.J. Mosley (6-2, 232). As good as the Tide has been, it has not exactly been dominant of late, though. Three of its past five opponents — LSU (49 attempts, 139 yards, 1 TD), Texas A&M (46 attempts, 165 yards, 2 TDs) and Georgia (29 attempts, 113 yards, 2 TDs) — all eclipsed the 100-yard mark and had at least some success on the ground. Notre Dame, meanwhile, has been tested. Two of its wins came against Stanford and Michigan State, both ranked in the top 10 in run defense.
WHEN NOTRE DAME PASSES THE BALL
Quarterback Everett Golson (58.9 pct., 2,135 yards, 11 TDs, 5 INTs) didn’t put up eye-opening numbers, but the Irish are hoping the redshirt freshman’s elusiveness will create problems for Bama like Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel did. Riddick (35 catches, 364 yards, 1 TD) believes Bama’s secondary is vulnerable and that he, along with 6-6, 251-pound Mackey Award-winning tight end Tyler Eifert (44 catches, 624 yards, 4 TDs), can create problems. The Tide, which has not given up 300 yards passing in a game all season, finished eighth nationally in pass-efficiency defense and produced 17 interceptions and 33 sacks this season. Notre Dame, though, has allowed just six sacks in its past six games. Ultimately, if the Irish can’t run the football and have to depend on Golson to throw to win, odds are they won’t go home happy.
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WHEN ALABAMA RUNS THE BALL
Junior Eddie Lacy (6-0, 220) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (6-2, 216) became the first tandem in Alabama history to rush for 1,000 yards in the same season. They’ve got a trio of All-Americans in center Barrett Jones (6-5, 302), left guard Chance Warmack (6-3, 320) and right tackle DJ Fluker (6-6, 335) paving the way in front of them. Led by star linebacker Manti Te’o (6-2, 255), nose guard Louis Nix III (6-3, 326) and end Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 303), the Irish ranked fourth nationally in run defense (92.42 yards per game) and allowed just two rushing touchdowns all season. The past two times Notre Dame gave up more than 100 yards in a game (Pittsburgh, Stanford) it needed overtime to win. When Texas A&M upset Alabama, the Tide ran for 122 yards — 102 below its season average. This is strength versus strength. Something has to give. Whoever wins this battle likely wins the game.
WHEN ALABAMA PASSES THE BALL
AJ McCarron was the nation’s most efficient passer with a 173.08 rating. He completed 66.8 percent of his passes for 2,669 yards, 26 touchdowns and three interceptions. But against Texas A&M and Georgia, two of Alabama’s past four opponents, McCarron struggled, completing 34 of his 55 attempts for 471 yards, two TDs and three INTs in those games combined. Freshman receiver Amari Cooper (6-1, 198) has played lights out and has emerged as a legitimate deep threat. Notre Dame, meanwhile, ranked 13th nationally in pass-efficiency defense and ranked among the nation’s leaders with 34 sacks and 25 turnovers forced. The key here will be how much pressure the Irish’s 3-4 defense can get on McCarron. For as much success as Bama has running the ball, the Tide gave up 23 sacks this season and has been vulnerable to pressure. If Alabama runs the ball successfully, the Irish will have to bring their safeties up, opening the door for Cooper to beat them deep.
Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza was 23 of 31 on field-goal attempts this season, but just 4 of 8 on attempts of 40 yards or more. He did connect on a 52-yarder. Alabama uses Jeremy Shelley for short-range kicks, and he is a perfect 11 of 11 from inside of 38 yards. Cade Foster is 4 of 9 on attempts of 40 yards or more. Three of his makes are from 50 yards or more — including a 52-yarder. Although Alabama didn’t return many kickoffs this season (19 total), the Crimson Tide did average 24.84 yards a return, compared with Notre Dame’s 20.04 average on 27 returns. Alabama also has a slight edge when it comes to punting. The Tide’s Cody Mandell averaged 43.8 yards a punt this season, and Notre Dame’s Ben Turk averaged 40.6 yards a punt.
With Alabama playing in its third title game in four years, it only seems natural to give Nick Saban and his staff the edge here. But Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is no rookie. While he was at Grand Valley State, Kelly coached in three consecutive Division II championship games from 2001 to 2003, winning the last two. Still, the fact Bama has been here often lately can’t be ignored. And nobody is as crazed to get everything perfectly prepared before a big game than Saban. Give him more than a month to prepare and he’s almost impossible to beat.