Notre Dame Football: Why the Irish Can Beat the SEC
Las Vegas has made Notre Dame a nine-and-a-half point underdog, and the national media has all but assured the college football masses that a seventh straight national championship for the SEC is only a humble acceptance speech away.
Nick Saban has been working feverishly in the mirror each morning to perfect a fake smile for the moment when they hand him the crystal trophy.
Rumor has it that the Crimson Tide have already scheduled the parade. Bowl officials have announced that a delicious gumbo will precede the awards banquet, although the hors d'oeuvres menu still needs minor tweaking to add okra to every appetizer.
Why? You’ve all heard it. Notre Dame lucked into an undefeated season and a title shot, while the SEC waged war among the real football teams. David meets Goliath, but this time David doesn’t have a slingshot.
You see, the SEC is simply unbeatable.
Or are they?
Why the SEC Is Unbeatable
Alabama is the SEC survivor, and it has a football resume that would make any program in the country proud.
From a personnel standpoint, Bama is loaded.
The Tide has an offensive line that is so big they were having a pizza party and inadvertently ate their second string. They’re so strong they practice against oak trees instead of blocking sleds to save money on sleds, and the oak trees quit.
The quarterback who is supposedly Alabama’s weak link was last year’s BCS title game offensive MVP. AJ McCarron passed for 2,669 yards this season, with a 67-percent completion rate and 26 TDs against three picks.
Pretty weak, huh?
Although he might not be the second coming of Andrew Luck, one has to concede that McCarron may know a little something about game management.
Eddie Lacy, the Tide’s starting running back, is a Mark Ingram-like runner with great balance and tons of speed who, if he had more carries, would be a shoo-in for the Heisman Trophy.
Back-up T.J. Yeldon is the same, only with more speed and dance moves in space. I kid you not.
A defense that plays in the most physical conference in college football was sixth in the country in passing defense, second in scoring defense and led the country in rushing and total defense—and it was a down year from last year.
I am serious.
The Crimson Tide beat 10-win defensive monster LSU and 11-win Georgia. They skinned and ate the Michigan Wolverines by 27 while the Fighting Irish squeaked out a seven-point win at home with the aid of six Big-Rat turnovers.
Their uber-mercenary coach has won national championships at two schools, with two of the last three at Bama. In addition to being well-prepared and experienced, he has a seriously sneaky streak that makes him almost impossible to game-plan against.
You still need a reason the big money is on Bama? Starting with the 2008 season, the only non-SEC team it lost to was to Utah in the Sugar Bowl after the 2008 season. Alabama is 48-5 with two national championships over the last three years in a conference that has won the last six national championships. The Crimson Tide are the biggest bully in a conference full of bullies.
Can the Irish beat all that?
Yes, and I’ll tell you why.
Notre Dame Can Beat a Solid Run Defense
The Tide has the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, giving up a hair under 80 yards a game. They have size, speed and they tackle in space, plus they’re really mean. As run defenses go, they are a kick-ass, rock-tough crimson wall.
Guess what, though. Notre Dame has already played the No. 2 (BYU), No. 3 (Stanford) and No. 8 (MSU) run defenses in the country, and beat them all. The Irish averaged more than 180 yards rushing in those games, running for 150 or more yards against two of the three best rushing defenses in the nation.
Why is that so important?
Note to reader: Alabama is 48-5 in the last three years. All five losses were against teams that had 150 or more rushing yards.
The Irish averaged more than 200 yards a game on the ground and had solid production against some of the toughest run defenses in the country.
Notre Dame can beat a solid run defense.
Notre Dame Can Beat a Solid Pass Defense
Bama is sixth in the country in pass defense, checking in at just more than 166 yards per game. Its 17 interceptions are good for 14th in the nation. The Tide defensive backs press coverage and steal the ball like thugs steal hubcaps.
Guess what, though. USC was 10th in the country in interceptions in 2012. They had none against the Irish. Michigan had the second-best pass defense in the country at 155 YPG, and the MSU Spartans came in ninth at just more than 173 yards an outing.
They all lost to ND.
And you know something else? Those three 10-plus win opponents that Bama played? They dropped 296 yards (LSU), 253 yards (Texas A&M), and 265 yards (Georgia) on the Tide secondary. LSU’s Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham combined for 12 catches and 149 yards. A&M’s Ryan Swope had 11 grabs for 111 yards. Georgia’s WR Tavarres King had five catches for 142 yards.
Yes, the Tide pass defense is solid, but they do give up more big plays than most top defenses.
Notre Dame can beat a solid pass defense.
Notre Dame Can Stop the Pass
Bama's passing attack is modest 85th in the country. Quarterback AJ McCarron completes 67 percent of his attempts while only throwing 23 times a game.
Bama doesn't have to throw. It runs you over, throws over the top until you back up, then runs you over again. Wash, repeat. The Tide don’t pass much, but they pass with purpose and do it well.
Mostly they throw deep to Amari Cooper, or hit a wide-open tight end if they’re too close to the goal line to let Cooper run under it. Sprinkle in a limited assortment of flat passes and a rare screen or two to the running backs and that’s about it for the Tide’s passing attack.
It’s limited, but it makes you pay if you cheat up to stop the run.
Guess what, though. ND’s 21st-ranked pass defense defends the pass well. The Irish held Oklahoma’s pass-first offense that had been averaging 39 points to 13. Miami’s spread passing game averaged 37 attempts, 295 yards and 27 points. Against the Irish, the Hurricanes managed 35 attempts, 201 yards and three points.
Nobody has made consistent yardage in the flat, and the Fighting Irish linebackers haven’t been burned for a big screen play this season.
Notre Dame can stop the pass.
Notre Dame Can Stop the Run
Bama is 20th in the country with a rushing offense that averages more than 224 yards a game. It gets more than six yards a carry and has two 1,000-yard runners in Eddie Lacy and T. J. Yeldon. The Tide run at you and run really fast.
More importantly, every member of the Alabama offensive line is a legitimate All-American candidate, averaging a massive 6’4”and 315 pounds of Grade A USDA-approved beef. As good as the backs are, the line is better, and they attack relentlessly like a crazed herd of angry rhinos with bigger horns.
They spit in their hands, dig in the dirt, point where they’re going and dare you to stop them.
If Notre Dame can’t stop Bama’s ground game, it will lose.
Guess what, though. Notre Dame was fourth in the FBS giving up a little less than 95 yards rushing per game, so it is doing something to tackle the people that carry the football.
Navy’s multi-faceted option offense topped 276 yards a game in 2012. The Midshipmen had 149 against the Irish. Michigan State's LaVeon Bell averaged more than 136 yards a game, but had only 77 against ND. BYU’s 162-yard a game running game was held to 66 against the Irish. USC’s running game, led by Silas Redd and Curtis McNeil, had its 155 yards a game cut down to 95 against ND.
But there is that all important question. Does size matter?
Pitt’s line averaged 6’5" and 324 pounds and its running game finished with 144 yards against the Irish. Pitt’s line is bigger than Bama’s by an inch and nine cheeseburgers per man. The Irish beat them.
The Irish have given up more than 100 yards rushing only four times this season, with a high of 161. Nobody has run over them.
Notre Dame can stop the run.
The Irish Can Compete with SEC Athletes
For all the numbers and analysis, the common reason cited by the Anti-Irish factions when asked why ND will go down in crimson flames is the perception that the SEC will just out-athlete the Irish.
Everyone know that the SEC’s athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and have a mean streak.
It is no secret that Bama’s last 40 or so recruiting classes were in the top five, not to mention the remnants of 20 years of over-signing. Did I mention umpteen dozen JUCO players who were waiting for Bama to figure out how to get the NCAA to OK their admission after their pro football plans didn’t pan out?
“Dan, the SEC is the only conference that has the athletes to compete with Bama.”
Guess what, though? The Irish played a really sneaky trick on the SEC: They stole their athletes and made them go to class.
Massive DE Stephon Tuitt, ND’s 6’6” 303-pound defensive end? He had six offers from SEC schools, including Florida, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina. Space-eating nose guard Louis Nix III? A 6’3” and 326 pounds of Irish chocolate, he passed on the SEC, including Florida, LSU, SC and Ole Miss. Starting safety Zeke Motta? He was offered by Auburn and Florida.
OLB Kendall Moore? He rejected offers from Tennessee, Auburn, and South Carolina. Prince Shembo? Tennessee offered, but he wasn’t interested. LB Danny Spond said no to Arkansas. OLB Ishaq Williams? he was desperately courted by Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and everyone else in the civilized world.
Know why Notre Dame is playing like an SEC defense this year? Because Notre Dame has an SEC defense.
“But Dan, the SEC has all those skill-position players that are game-changers.” I know, I know. They’re so good and our guys came to South Bend fresh out of a recruiting war with Rutgers and Rhode Island.
Or did they?
Those offensive skill positions? Dual threat QB Everett Golson? He was offered by Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. WR T.J. Jones had offers from Bama and Georgia. WR Chris Brown was invited to play at Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Davaris Daniels skipped on Arkansas. Running back Cierre Wood? He said no to Florida and Auburn.
You know who the SEC recruiting braintrust didn’t offer? Manti Te’o. Tyler Eifert. Zach Martin. George Atkinson III. You really have to like the breadcrumbs.
Notre Dame can stop SEC-level athletes because they are SEC-level athletes.
Make no mistake, Alabama is a rugged crew of wrecking-ball tough football players, and it will take every bit of talent, strength, effort and discipline to take the crown from their cold beaten hands.
However, in the words of that great Irish humanitarian, Dr. Martin Luther O’King:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the great difficulties of January 7th, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the Irish-American dream.
I have a dream that one day that Irish nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. But that on this day, the Fighting Irish are even more equal."
I have a dream that one day soon on the white beaches of Miami, the former students and the subway alumni will be able to sit down together on the bar stools of brotherhood and toast an Irish national championship.
I have a dream today!
And when that happens, when blood and sweat have dried and the sounds of helmets banging helmets fade into the night air, the Irish will stand proud.
And if that happens, this Notre Dame team, its coaches, the university and Irish Nation will have something more important than a trophy. They will have the freedom from the army of doubters that comes with respect well-earned.
Free at last, free at last. God Almighty, free at last.