The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the only team to finish the 2012 college football season undefeated, but come into the BCS National Championship Game as a 10-point underdog to the one-loss Alabama Crimson Tide.
It seems that the Irish aren’t getting the respect that they deserve from the bookmakers, and public opinion isn’t straying too far from Vegas’ party line. Most predict the Tide to roll down in Miami on January 7, winning their second straight championship after a low-scoring game that Notre Dame simply fails to put points up during.
If the Irish want to prove all of these doubters wrong and bring the crystal football back to South Bend, here is what they must accomplish:
Beat ‘Bama’s O-Line
The real strength of coach Nick Saban’s squad lies in his offensive line. Two of the big bodies along that front five were named to the AP All-American first team—center Barrett Jones (winning for the second straight year, after moving from guard in 2012) and guard Chance Warmack, proving that it’s no secret just how great this line really is.
Their power lies in sheer mass, coupled with immensely graceful footwork and technique. The average weight of the five studs that protect QB A.J. McCarron and clear lanes for the talented Tide RBs is 314 pounds, with tackle D.J. Fluker tipping the scales at a whopping 335 pounds and Jones—clearly watching his figure—at a svelte 302.
When considering the size of these kids, it’s not much of a stretch to find out McCarron has only been sacked 22 times and has thrown three interceptions all season. There’s no real wondering why both Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon were able to reach 1,000 yards and score a combined 27 touchdowns. Much of the credit goes to the O-line, and it certainly should.
Fortunately, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has kept a close eye on ‘Bama and followed its success over the past few years, bringing in players that could emulate their winning ways.
The Irish defensive line boasts a number of massive young men, including stud sophomore Stephon Truitt (6’6”, 303 lbs), Kapron Lewis-Moore (6’4”, 306) and Louis Nix III (6’3”, 326). They have the physicality and brute strength to go head-to-head with this ‘Bama line, and have plenty of support behind them from Manti Te’o and the rest of the ND defense.
This game has a strong chance of coming down to a single goal-line stand, and we’ve seen the Irish make critical ones against both Stanford and USC. They’ll face the toughest test yet, and it will be an absolute battle of wills should the ‘Bama O-line face the Notre Dame D-line with a touchdown and game on the line.
If the Irish get a stop, they’ll get the upset.
Win the Turnover Battle
Everyone seems to understand that this is going to be a close game, and we’ve hinted that the outcome is likely going to hinge on a goal-line stand, which makes taking care of the ball a No. 1 priority for the Irish.
Notre Dame as a whole was great at limiting mistakes and forcing its opponents into making their own during their epic 2012 campaign.
In seven games against FBS opponents with winning records, the team was plus-1.43 in T.O. margin. They also did well away from South Bend, going plus-1.17 compared to a scant plus-0.33 in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.
This bodes well for the Irish’s chances of coming out ahead in turnovers against the Crimson Tide, a team that was held only a plus-0.5 margin against winning opponents.
The Irish’s not-so-secret weapon is LB Manti Te’o, the Heisman runner-up who recorded a whopping seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries to go along with his 103 tackles in 2012.
Much of the credit for the Irish’s outstanding turnover margin must go to the senior, whose ability to hawk down balls in the passing game and scoop loose ones off the ground has been paramount to winning close games.
If Te’o can make a huge play against ‘Bama and force a turnover, it will go a long ways toward helping the Irish upset.
Establish a Running Game
When Notre Dame has possession of the football, it is going to need to make something happen against one of the fiercest defensive units in the league.
The Tide have conceded nary 11 points per game on the ground, with their 10.7 average finishing second in the nation—just behind the Irish’s 10.3. However, Bama has been much more opportunistic when scoring, averaging 38.5 points per contest, good 15th in the country. Notre Dame has only been able to put up an average of 26.8 points, ranked just 76th in the FBS.
While Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood—the top two RBs in the Irish’s backfield—are great players, neither reached over 900 yards or scored more than five touchdowns. It’s been tough for them to find space, as coach Brian Kelly hasn't given sophomore QB Everett Golson many opportunities to throw.
Defenses, especially front sevens, have been bearing down against the run when they face the Irish, as they know full well that there’s a legitimate chance on every down that someone was carrying the ball out of the backfield.
While it may be risky to throw at the Crimson Tide, we’ve already broken down their turnover margin and Golson should at least take a few shots deep in order to open things up for his backs.
It’ll be interesting if Kelly feels the same and finally lets his young QB off the leash in the BCS National Championship Game. If he does, it could spell a major upset for ‘Bama.