With the beginning of the New Year comes the BCS bowl season across the nation, but we all know it's a mere precursor to Jan. 7's clash of college football royalty. It will be on that date that the No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish look to capture their first national championship since 1988 against the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide, the defending champs.
It will essentially be the game that network television executives have longed for. Two of the preeminent programs in the nation doing battle, with the victor coming out as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Which team will win? That remains to be seen. However, there are a few overarching points of emphasis that both teams should make in order to give themselves the best chance at victory.
With that in mind, here is a look at what both Alabama and Notre Dame must do to capture the BCS National Championship.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Neutralize Notre Dame's Front Seven
The pregame storyline that few will talk about, but all should be, will be the battle between Notre Dame's front seven and Alabama's offensive line. A total of five AP All-Americans will be key to that matchup, including likely first-round picks Manti Te'o and Chance Warmack.
Those aren't the only two notable names in action, either. Rimington Trophy winner Barrett Jones will also line up for his final game on the Alabama offensive line alongside Warmack and a couple of other potential pros (down the line) like Cyrus Kouandjio.
Te'o also isn't the only player in Notre Dame's front seven worthy of recognition. Stephon Tuitt recorded 12 sacks as a defensive end in a 3-4 system and Prince Shembo added 7.5 as a rushing outside linebacker.
With Te'o controlling the middle, Notre Dame has had the ability to send free rushers at the quarterback while also sending intricate run blitzes. Alabama's ability to pick up on those blitzers and give A.J. McCarron time to throw the ball and to open rushing lanes could hold the key to its game plan.
If Alabama can neutralize the line of scrimmage, the vaunted Notre Dame defense could struggle to make an impact.
Win Third Down Battle
One could point to a number of individual areas where Alabama needs to win, but it's a team-wide offensive goal that may be most important. While it's an obviously underrated statistic, there is no mistaking that Alabama and Notre Dame got to this point by being dominant on third down.
Alabama converts 46.8 percent of its first downs, a figure that puts the Tide a respectable 23rd in the nation. That's not exactly spectacular, but when it coincides with a 32.8 percent allowance for opponents on third down, the dichotomy keeps the ball in Alabama's hands while taking it out of the opposition's.
Notre Dame isn't anywhere near a slouch, either. The Irish complete 47.3 percent of their first downs, compared with only 34.6 for their opponents. From a purely statistical standpoint, that means Notre Dame is slightly worse than Alabama, but only in regards to utter dominance.
Obviously, something has to give. Both teams cannot ascend on third down on both sides of the ball. And with the Tide wanting to slowly wear down the Irish's defense a la last season's national championship game, those third-down conversions will play a vital role.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Get an Ascendant Performance From Everett Golson
Truth be told, Brian Kelly has asked very little of his freshman quarterback all season long. Golson averaged only 25.6 pass attempts per game and the play-calling was rather conservative even on those plays. For a coach that cut his cloth running a high-powered offense at Cincinnati, Kelly has had to adjust his game plan throughout the season to flow with Golson's strengths.
Kelly will have to unleash Golson against Alabama if they hope to win a national championship. The Tide will walk into Sun Life Stadium with the second-best scoring defense in the nation, which is absolutely brilliant against the run.
Alabama leads the nation in yards allowed per game (79.8) and yards per attempt against (2.5) and is second to only BYU in first downs allowed (60). In other words, this won't be a game where Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are able to be the fulcrum of the game plan.
Unfortunately for the Irish, Golson's limited sample size against ranked teams doesn't bode well for their future. Here is a look at how the young quarterback has performed against ranked opponents versus unranked squads:
Golson vs. Ranked Opponents (four games): 42-of-89 (47.2 percent), 526 yards (131.5 average), 2 TDs, 2 INT
Golson vs. Unranked Opponents (seven games): 124-of-193 (64.2 percent), 1,609 yards (229.86 average), 9 TDs, 3 INT
If that performance level continues in the national championship game, Notre Dame may get blown out. The Tide's biggest (semi) weakness is in the secondary and without Golson having a game worthy of his preseason hype, the Irish offense could stagnate.
Force A.J. McCarron to Beat You
In last season's national championship game, LSU employed a defensive strategy built solely to stop Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. It worked for the most part, as Alabama averaged only 4.3 yards per carry and got its only breakaway run late when the Tigers had essentially realized that this wasn't their night.
They realized that not only because of the Tide's swarming defense, but also because A.J. McCarron played one of the best games of his life. Considered a massive question mark, McCarron completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards while playing against Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne, then considered two of the best cornerbacks in college football.
This time around, very few doubt McCarron's ability. He threw for 2,669 yards and 26 touchdowns against only three interceptions this season and leads the nation with a 173.1 quarterback rating.
That doesn't mean Notre Dame's strategy should be any different this year than LSU's was a year ago. Though Richardson has left for greener NFL pastures, Lacy is still around and is joined by T.J. Yeldon to form a dynamic duo at running back. Both have averaged over six yards per carry on the season, and Alabama fans across the nation can thank them for even being in this position.
Tide fans can thank Yeldon and Lacy because McCarron was put on ice for the second half of the game due to ineffectiveness. The Alabama signal-caller threw the ball only seven times in the second half against Georgia, as Saban chose to ride his running backs to victory.
Whether he could do the same against Notre Dame's front seven is questionable. So while the strategy may not have worked for LSU a year ago, the Irish need to employ a similar look and hope McCarron flails under pressure.
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