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Notre Dame vs. Ohio State: How the Last 2 Unbeatens Match Up

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Notre Dame vs. Ohio State: How the Last 2 Unbeatens Match Up
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

One of the best aspects of a two-team championship system like college football's is when there are two clear-cut title-worthy teams, especially if they're both undefeated. And indeed, we have a scenario just like that this year, with Notre Dame and Ohio State running the table.

Of course, Ohio State is out of the running for the BCS Championship or anything else thanks to NCAA sanctions, so Notre Dame is going to be facing whoever wins the SEC Championship between Alabama and Georgia. And to be clear: Whoever wins that game will be a deserving participant in the BCS Championship and will have accomplished a great season without running afoul of the NCAA (as far as we know).

But come on. If Ohio State were eligible to win the Big Ten Championship and could win the rematch against Nebraska in the conference title game, there'd be absolutely no doubt that it would be Notre Dame and Ohio State facing each other in Miami for the national championship. None.

So let's think about that. Who wins that game?

First things first: According to oddsmaker and analyst Todd Fuhrman, Notre Dame would be favored by 2.5 points over Ohio State at a neutral location. That's not to say this hypothetical game's already in the bag for the Fighting Irish—per TeamRankings.com, 2.5-point favorites have only won 54.5 percent of the time since 2003—but 54.5 percent is still more than 50, so that's a slight advantage in Notre Dame's favor.

That said, from a personnel standpoint, one would expect Ohio State to hold its own.

Ohio State's strength is on its defensive line. Since the Buckeyes' season is already over, DE John Simon's not rehabbing his knee with the intent to have it ready by a bowl game. Let's assume he could, though; bursa sac injuries don't usually linger for six weeks. If he's healthy and the rest of the Ohio State defensive line is good to go, Notre Dame would struggle to control the line of scrimmage.

The closest corollary for Ohio State's strength up front is Michigan State's defensive line, and the Spartans certainly held their own on rush defense when Notre Dame came to town. The Fighting Irish rushed for only 122 yards on 34 carries that evening; it just didn't matter much since Notre Dame ended up winning 20-3.

Video is here.

Passing, however, is a different story. This season, Ohio State generally had the luxury of dictating its opponents' offensive approach, being that the Buckeyes were often up by enough that the other team had no choice but to just start throwing. Thus, we get into a situation where Ohio State ranks only 71st in passing yards given up with 243.5 given up per game...but the Buckeyes are also 28th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Teams throw because they have to, and Ohio State generally makes that difficult when it knows those passes are coming.

In a tight game with Notre Dame, however, the Buckeyes wouldn't have the luxury of forcing obvious passing situations with any regularity—especially because Notre Dame's passing offense is generally conservative rather than aggressive. There's a reason why Notre Dame converts 47 percent of its third downs: Brian Kelly prefers to keep his team in manageable third-down situations. 

That approach was instrumental in Notre Dame's 22-13 win over USC. The Fighting Irish didn't bomb the ball all over the field and only got into the end zone once, but you see how easily Everett Golson was able to keep the ball moving with the intermediate passing game here in this highlight video.

Thus, while cornerbacks Travis Howard and Bradley Roby would be forced to play up and limit Notre Dame's short passing game on the outside, the real matchup would be between superstar TE Tyler Eifert and whomever Urban Meyer puts on him. Meyer could choose one of his safeties Christian Bryant or C.J. Barnettt; he could also go with, say, LB Ryan Shazier. The safeties aren't great in man coverage, however, and they find themselves out of position too regularly. If the alternative is taking Shazier away from the middle of the field, however, Notre Dame is still finding itself at an advantage.

Ohio State has one of the toughest running games in the nation. Notre Dame has one of the most dominant defensive fronts in the nation. This matchup, if it were allowed to take place by the NCAA, would be one of the most compelling of the entire bowl season.

We would see a general stalemate along the line between Notre Dame's defensive linemen and Ohio State's starting five. That's a win for Notre Dame, because the more attention given to the line, the freer Manti Te'o can roam, and he's athletic and strong enough to make life hell for Braxton Miller as he tries to get loose to the second level where he's absolutely deadly in the open field. Those big runs that have typified Miller's season and Ohio State's overall offense? They'd be a little harder to come by.

Here's video of Notre Dame's defense against Michigan this year. It's every snap, so it's 15 minutes long. You don''t have to watch all 15, but just watch a minute or two—any minute will do—and note how rarely Michigan's offensive line gets to the second level. The Notre Dame linebackers stay free, especially in the middle. And a free linebacker, especially one named Manti Te'o, is a dangerous linebacker.

This would be a great game—a struggle for sure, and not one that would overload the scoreboard, but a great game all the same. We're not going to pick a winner, because what's the point of doing that for a game that won't be played, but we would like to believe that regulation would end on this one with both teams at 17. At that point, it's off to midfield for the next coin flip and an overtime where both teams give their season to the cruel, capricious football gods. Past that, it's a game of 50/50 plays. The coin never stops flipping—not until someone's raising the crystal football.

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