We now stand just three weeks away from the BCS Championship Game between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama. Despite the higher ranking and the unblemished record, the Fighting Irish are more than a touchdown underdog to the defending national champions.
Why the lack of respect for Brian Kelly's team? Well, you don't need to be wearing crimson-colored glasses to see why the Tide have won 25 of their past 27 games dating back to 2010.
Here are five things about Alabama that will make the final days leading up to kickoff in Miami stressful for the Notre Dame coaching staff.
Notre Dame survived one star receiver who wears No. 9 when it held USC’s Marqise Lee to just 75 yards in a 22-13 win last month, but now the Irish must deal with another No. 9 if it hopes to win a national championship. Alabama’s Amari Cooper has burst onto the scene as a true freshman, giving Alabama the big-play threat that it lacked heading into the season.
Cooper finished the regular season with 895 yards and nine touchdowns, including the game-winner in the epic SEC Championship Game win over Georgia. While Notre Dame had the benefit of facing Lee without Matt Barkley throwing to him, they will have no such advantage against the Crimson Tide and A.J. McCarron.
There hasn’t been an offensive line that Notre Dame’s defensive front hasn’t been able to handle this season, but it’ll now get the ultimate test against the best offensive line in the nation. Left guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones were consensus All-Americans, while right tackle D.J. Fluker could be a first-round NFL Draft pick in April should he forgo his senior season.
The Irish will need more than just their starting three linemen to win the battle in the trenches. Expect both outside linebackers, Prince Shembo and Danny Spond, to line up on the line of scrimmage to avoid double teams on Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
Freshman Sheldon Day and sophomore Tony Springmann will have to spell the starters against a relentless Alabama rushing attack.
Credit Brian Kelly for how he has managed a first-year quarterback and helped limit the costly mistakes that ruined the 2011 season. Everett Golson has avoided the critical interceptions that come from mistakes such as not noticing a blitzing linebacker dropping into coverage.
Mosley, a redshirt junior, is as good in pass coverage as any linebacker in college football, helping him to an all-SEC season and a few appearances on All-American teams.
Golson must again avoid mental mistakes against the Tide, but Mosley is as good as there is at taking a quick slant pass the other way for six points.
No unit feels the impact of Nick Saban more so than the secondary. From Randall Gay at LSU to Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas and Dre Kirkpatrick at Alabama, Saban always has at least one shutdown cornerback. This year, it’s Milliner, a junior who is likely to join Jackson and Kirkpatrick as first-round NFL Draft picks next spring.
Milliner has good size at 6’1” and could be matched up against Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame’s top passing target. One of the keys to the game will be how Alabama uses Milliner, given that the Irish All-American tight end is the biggest downfield threat.
If Davaris Daniels can return from a collarbone injury, he would give the Irish another player with big-play potential against a secondary that, outside of Milliner, has been shaky at times against the pass this season.
Who the best coaches in college football are is always subject to debate, but there is no argument for who currently owns the top spot. Saban is one win away from his third BCS title in four years and fourth overall.
Saban is often perceived as coaching conservatively with his reliance on the ground game, but he’s also not afraid to call an occasional fake field goal or punt, which, in a game that should be low-scoring, could be the difference in winning or losing.