Notre Dame has a handful of matchups that could potentially pose problems for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
While Notre Dame is the presumed underdog in next month’s national title game against Alabama, Nick Saban is well aware of the challenges that the unbeaten and top-ranked Irish pose to his team.
A look at the Irish’s body of work this season shows that Brian Kelly’s squad is built similarly to the Tide and other SEC powers.
From their size and athleticism on one of the nation’s best defenses, to the dual-threat ability of quarterback Everett Golson, Saban will have to prepare his players for a slugfest when they take the field on Jan. 7.
So what areas of Notre Dame’s team are likely to command Saban’s attention in the coming weeks leading up to kickoff?
Here are five things about Notre Dame that will keep Saban up at night until next month’s title tilt.
The Irish have one of the best defenses in the country, a point that is personified by their play when opponents get into the red zone.
Teams have advanced inside the Irish’s 20-yard line 33 times this season, but Bob Diaco’s unit has allowed only 21 scores from those drives—including just eight touchdowns.
By comparison, opponents have scored 14 touchdowns on Alabama in the red zone.
However, Alabama’s offense has scored touchdowns on nearly 72 percent of its red zone possessions.
In a game that features two outstanding defenses and one in which points could come at a premium, the Tide must find a way to get the upper hand in that battle when they get into scoring territory.
The Irish rank sixth nationally in total defense and fourth in the country against the run—which makes them comparable to Alabama’s top-rated unit in both categories.
The average weight of Notre Dame’s front seven starters is 275 pounds—which makes them roughly six pounds heavier than Alabama’s starters, and both teams employ a similar 3-4 scheme.
Considering that the physicality factor is always one of the first things cited when SEC teams play in bowl games, that category does not appear to tilt the scales in favor of the Tide in this matchup.
Irish All-American linebacker Manti Te’o gets the headlines, but guys like defensive tackle Louis Nix III, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Prince Shembo are also freakish talents with NFL futures.
While Alabama’s offensive line has played at a high level all season long, the Irish—who have given up only two rushing touchdowns all season—will provide a worthy adversary in a showdown with a crystal football on the line.
Notre Dame leading rusher Theo Riddick—a former multi-year starter at receiver for the Irish—poses a much different threat to the Tide because of his ability to leak out of the backfield and become a dangerous receiver.
Thirty-five of Riddick’s 119 career receptions have come this season, which should put added stress on Alabama’s linebackers or defensive backs trying to cover him in space.
Riddick recorded at least three receptions in nine of the Irish’s 12 games this season, and containing him as a receiver could prove to be more difficult than limiting his effectiveness at running back.
Much has been made of Alabama’s struggles against mobile quarterbacks in the past under Saban.
Golson is clearly not the magician that Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel is, and counting on him to duplicate Manziel’s scintillating performance against the Tide would be foolish.
However, his legs could prove to be crucial for the Irish’s offense—particularly on third down where the Tide has had issues getting off the field in big games over the final month of the season.
Golson—who has five rushing touchdowns this season—also adds another dimension for Kelly’s offense in the red zone.
Eifert—who took home the Mackey Award, which is given to the nation’s top tight end—is the Irish’s leading receiver this season with 44 catches for 624 yards and four touchdowns.
Kelly will likely attempt to move Eifert around—whether it means keeping him in motion or flexing him out wide as a receiver—in an effort to create the most favorable matchup.
Regardless of where he lines up, the Tide’s defense will have to be aware of where he is at all times on every play.
Eifert is easily the most gifted tight end Alabama will have seen to this point in the season, and slowing down the 6’6”, 251-pounder will surely be a point of focus for Saban and his staff over the next few weeks.