Notre Dame and Alabama, the two most storied programs in College Football, will square off for the BCS National Championship. That just sounds right, doesn't it?
But this is an old-school game, even when you look past the names on the jerseys. The new iteration of college football is all about offense, you say?
Notre Dame and Alabama are the top two scoring defenses in the nation.
Although some already want to concede the trophy to Alabama––as if an SEC team wouldn't win it all––Notre Dame poses a formidable threat that shouldn't be taken lightly.
Let's take a look at three intriguing matchups that could ultimately decide the BCS National Champion:
WR Amari Cooper vs. CBs Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell
Prior to the SEC Championship Game, most of the nation was duly misinformed about this Alabama team. The Tide, they thought, are one of the best teams in the land––but they're good despite lacking true playmakers on the outside.
Well, nation: Meet Amari Cooper.
The freshman sensation, who happens to be Alabama's leading receiver, has gotten better and better as the year has progressed. He was the team's best offensive weapon against Texas A&M––racking up 136 yards and a touchdown––and has also impressed against Tennessee and Auburn.
But Cooper's season hit an apex against Georgia when, in the national spotlight, he came up with two of the game's most crucial plays. First came a ridiculous up-for-grabs bomb that he hauled in for 44 yards in the second quarter. But the big show came later. With Alabama down three and driving late in the fourth, Cooper did....well, this:
Tasked with stopping Alabama's newest version of Julio Jones will be the Irish's tandem of Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell. Thought to be the Irish's point of weakness during the preseason, Jackson and Russell have stepped up all year to become one of the team's strengths.
And they're no stranger to facing talented, young receivers. Just two weeks ago they found themselves squaring off against, and holding their own with, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods of USC.
If Jackson and Russell can keep Cooper in check and prevent Alabama from pulling off a big play through the air, their stout front seven might be able to keep them in the game right until the end.
QB A.J. McCarron vs. LB Manti Te'o
That's right. Not Eddie Lacy vs. Manti Te'o. Not T.J. Yeldon vs. Manti Te'o. And not Barrett Jones or Chance Warmack vs. Manti Te'o.
One of the most important factors in this game will be whether A.J. McCarron can avoid letting Manti Te'o make a play.
Notre Dame's offense has gone through spells––often exaggerated spells––of incompetence. When those spells arrive, as they surely will at points against Alabama, the team looks to their Heisman-candidate linebacker to make a play.
And time and time again, Te'o has delivered.
Against teams like BYU and Michigan, when Notre Dame has been pushed against a wall, Te'o has come up with a big interception that has swung the momentum back their way. The tackles are one thing; he will be counted on to help slow down the Tide's vaunted rushing attack. But the big play is something he has specialized in.
A.J. McCarron threw a pretty boneheaded interception in the red zone against Georgia. He can ill-afford to make a mistake like that in this one, because Te'o will be waiting in the wings.
Nick Saban vs. Brian Kelly
I know, I know, I know––it's boring. But I'd be remiss not to mention this heavyweight coaching battle.
Brian Kelly was honored with the Home Depot Coach of the Year Award, and he'll get the chance to test his hardware out in this one. Despite the much-deserved trophy, many still say that coaching is Alabama's biggest advantage over Notre Dame.
The job Kelly has done rebuilding the Notre Dame program is remarkable. And he's always been a formidable in-game coach. But now he'll have to come up with a scheme that can break down Nick Saban's vaunted defense.
Kelly will also have to get his team duly prepared to play in this one. He'll have to assuage its nerves, channel its adrenaline for good rather than bad purposes.
These are all the things Nick Saban has proven himself capable of doing on a stage this massive. Hell, he did it last weekend.
If Brian Kelly isn't up to the task, if he doesn't have his team performing in just the right way, it'll be impossible to spring the upset.