In major professional sports, there are certain championship match-ups between certain foes that essentially epitomize the essence of the sport as a whole in a way that transcends other, merely mortal, championship match-ups. The NFL has the Cowboys and the Steelers. Major League Baseball has the Yankees and the Cardinals. The NBA has the Lakers and the Celtics. And if there is indeed a similar pinnacle of college football, it undeniably involves Alabama taking on Notre Dame for the national championship. With the two foremost traditional powerhouse programs set to clash tonight in Miami, the simple truth is that college football does not get more climactic than this.
Notre Dame comes in undefeated and the unanimous number one team in the country, yet in a strange turn of events a nine-point underdog. Instead, heavy is indeed the head of Alabama, which comes in wearing the proverbial crown despite being toppled in mid-November by Texas A&M, and who is seeking to win its third national championship in four years. And while it may have occurred long before the time of any current player who will take the field tonight, these two foes have been here before, and it ended in absolute heartbreak for the Crimson Tide faithful in the 1974 Sugar Bowl and the 1975 Orange Bowl. To that end, Alabama takes the field tonight hoping to stamp "dynasty" across the Tuscaloosa map, and exercise those demons from decades gone by, much like it did three years ago in Pasadena against the Texas Longhorns.
From the outset, the appearance of both teams in South Beach in early January is a bit of a surprise. Notre Dame has clearly been a rising program under Brian Kelly, but 2012 in South Bend was widely expected to be another step in the ascension, a taste of better things to come in the years ahead. Alabama, meanwhile, returned tremendous talent throughout the roster, but a lack of senior leadership and overall inexperience, combined with the usual SEC gauntlet, was expected to send the Tide somewhere north of South Beach for the bowl season. Instead, both pulled through in key contests and had just enough outside help to earn a berth in what is undoubtedly one of the most high-profile BCS Championship Games in recent memory.
The road to Miami has been bumpy for Notre Dame, with multiple close calls against mediocre-at-best opponents and some favorable officiating against Stanford, but give this team credit where it's due: 12-0 does not happen by accident, regardless of circumstances. Alabama, too, while it may not get the attention of as many pundits, has also been the recipient of good fortunes in its own right, including a friendly inter-divisional conference schedule and questionable-at-best playcalling in the closing stages by both LSU and Georgia. While 'Bama comes into tonight as roughly a nine-point favorite, that likely says as much about inertia of the betting class than it does any real on-field advantage for the Tide, and in truth tonight figures to be a close contest in the heat and humidity of South Florida.
Offensively, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has traditionally employed a wide-open spread passing attack at his previous stops, but personnel limitations in South Bend have forced him to transition to more of a traditional power game. Quarterback Everett Golson is something of a jack-of-all-trades, sufficient at most things but not spectacular in any one phase, and with Golson's relative limitations combined with the lack of a true playmakers outside at wide receiver, Notre Dame instead attacks opposing defenses in a way that will be very similar to what Alabama followers see out of its Crimson Tide each Saturday. Glitz and glamour have given way to the more traditional tenants of offensive football in South Bend: Protect the ball, avoid big negative plays, establish the run with consistency, and make the occasional vertical play in the passing game.
The overall production of the offense hasn't been anything special, and it has in fact been outright sluggish at times, but as a means to a greater end the unit has been nothing if not sufficient on the whole. The star of the group is tight end Tyler Eifert, a 6'6 and 250 pound senior who recently won the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end. Leading the Irish in both receptions and receiving yards, Eifert is a tough physical match-up with exceptional ball skills to boot, and limiting him will have to be the first priority for the Tide defense. Notre Dame also runs the football well, with three talented tailbacks with good size -- Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson III -- to go along with the shifty Golson, who is effective as a runner even if not overly elusive. The offensive line lacks the raw size and name recognition of the Alabama big uglies, but they have held up well enough to date, and combined it allows Notre Dame to do what it wants: Run the football, avoid big plays, let Golson move the chains with his legs when necessary, and make just enough plays in the passing game to Tyler Eifert and TJ Jones, who leads a wide receiver corps which lacks star power but has plenty of quality depth.
The Alabama defense has certainly faced more explosive offenses this season -- see Texas A&M and Georgia, in particular -- but it needs an especially good performance tonight given the strength of the Notre Dame defense and the likely low-scoring nature of the game. Covering Eifert will be the foremost priority, and 'Bama expects to devote significant personnel resources to doing so, likely by utilizing star cornerback DeMarcus Milliner, or by bracketing Eifert with Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and another defender. Outside of Eifert, the Alabama front seven needs to control the game at the point of attack and take full advantage of Notre Dame's somewhat undersized offensive line to slow the running game and put the emphasis on Golson. Even if that is the case, however, 'Bama has to do a far better job stopping the dual-threat attack than it did last time it faced such a foe (see Johnny Manziel) and tackling in space will be at a particularly high premium tonight. On the whole there is no real reason to expect that Notre Dame will pile on the points tonight, but again the margin of error for this Alabama defense is small, because Notre Dame has proven time and again it does not need many points to win given the strength of their own defense and their knack for avoiding big negative plays, including turnovers. Seventeen or twenty points could be enough for the Irish, so the Alabama defense must play exceedingly well.
The backbone of this Notre Dame team lies on the defensive side of the football, particularly in the defensive front seven. Much like Alabama, Notre Dame operates out of a base 3-4 defense, and while senior linebacker Manti Te'o receives the bulk of the praise and attention, he is far from the only standout on this unit. The defensive line is the group that largely leads the way on this team, with the interior being anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix III, a 325-pound mammoth who allows linebackers Te'o and Prince Shembo to run free. What makes the line so special, however, is that Nix is flanked by Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore, a pair of 300 pounders who are shockingly active in the opposing backfield for 3-4 defensive ends, with the players combining for roughly 20 sacks and 20 tackles for loss on the season.
Alabama counters, of course, with an offensive line that is arguably the best in the country, with a starting five which will all play on Sunday. As such, the line match-up tonight between the 'Bama offensive line and Notre Dame defensive line will be of particularly great importance, and could easily be the deciding factor in the game. To be sure, Alabama has quality players at the skill positions, and Notre Dame likewise has quality players in the back seven, but make no mistake about it: Both of these units are built and designed to win games from the inside out by controlling the point of attack. The one-on-one battle between the injury-slowed Barrett Jones and the imposing Nix could be the simple most important match-up of the night.
The hope for Alabama, obviously, is that the Crimson Tide offensive line can win the battle in the trenches and 'Bama can take control by running between the tackles with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. If that does not happen, however, or if it only happens to a limited degree or with a lack of consistency, the burden will once again be placed on the shoulders of junior quarterback AJ McCarron, just as it was a year ago in New Orleans. McCarron has been nothing if not an enigma wrapped up in a riddle this season, playing poorly for 50+ minutes against LSU, Texas A&M, and Georgia, only to make several impressive throws late in the closing minutes of those contests to suddenly rally the Tide -- but such poor performances mixed with frenzied about-faces late in the fourth quarter may not be enough for Alabama tonight if Notre Dame can slow down the Tide running game.
To be sure, many consider the Notre Dame defensive backfield to be the weak link of this unit, with cornerbacks that are somewhat undersized and safeties that have not made a significant number of big plays in pass defense. Only one problem with that, however, and that is the fact that no one has really exploited this defensive backfield to date, and the linebacker corps, and in particular Manti Te'o, is especially impressive in pass coverage, which is no small concern for an offense that, like Alabama's, relies so heavily on the short-to-intermediate crossing routes. Then again, though, Notre Dame hasn't faced a particularly strong passing attack this season -- nor does Oklahoma and Landry Jones really fit that criterion, despite their overall gaudy statistics -- and the Alabama wide receiver corps should benefit from the return to health of Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood. Either way, unless Alabama can control this game at the point of attack, McCarron must simply play much better for Alabama to secure the crystal ball for the second consecutive season. 'Bama simply cannot wait until there is six minutes left in the game before it finds an effective passing attack.
Given what could easily become a razor-thin contest, special teams could be the difference-maker tomorrow night, and that could create numerous gut-wrenching moments for both sides. Alabama punter Cody Mandell has been strong of late, and short-range place-kicker Jeremy Shelley has been almost automatic, but 'Bama has muffed multiple punts in recent weeks and long-range kicker Cade Foster has not successfully converted a field goal try in months (which says nothing of the blocked kick returned for a touchdown against Georgia). Notre Dame, meanwhile, has its own concerns in the kicking game. The Irish languish near the bottom of the country nationally in punt and kickoff returns, and while the punting game is fairly solid, placekicker Nick Tausch will likely miss the game with a leg injury, and while replacement Kyle Brindza has a strong leg and has been more successful of late, his accuracy has been spotty-at-best from longer distances this season. Truth be told, having this game come down to special teams is likely not something either team wants, and it's hard to distill whether either team has any meaningful advantage once the special teams take the field.
While nearly all signs point to a close, relatively low-scoring affair, for Alabama the Tide has to erase some decade-old demons while this team must finally put together a strong performance against a quality foe. Alabama has proven time and again this season that it can massacre overwhelmed opponents, but in its three biggest games against its three best opponents, 'Bama struggled in all three contests, and was instead forced to rely on last-second comebacks to stay above water in all three games. Notre Dame may indeed be the beneficiary of some good fortunes in close games, but no rational observer believes that this team is anything if not a formidable and dangerous opponent, and to that end Alabama must respond in kind with a performance befitting of the caliber of the opponent and the grandiosity of the stage.
And then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: With a win, Alabama once again becomes an undeniable dynasty, while a loss could never be more painful than one suffered (yet again) at the hands of Notre Dame in Miami. Perhaps of even greater importance, a cautionary tale best told by LSU, who one year ago had many pundits believing that they were destined for back-to-back national championships in their own right: When you have the crystal ball within your grasp, you better take firm control of it right then and there, because you never know when you will return and circumstances can change very quickly.
For better or for worse, the stage is set in South Beach; a win tonight will always be remembered, and a loss will never be forgotten. The stakes will simply never get any higher than this.
Hope for the best.