Alabama head coach Nick Saban will try to help the Crimson Tide to become the first team to capture three national titles in the BCS era, if they can beat Notre Dame on Monday night.
With the BCS National Championship Game just days away, it’s time for the final installment of my series breaking down the rosters by position for the Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish—with this concentrating on special teams and the coaching staffs for both clubs.
Considering both clubs mirror each other in their philosophies on offense and defense, the importance of winning the special teams' phase becomes heightened in a game of this magnitude.
Nick Saban and Brian Kelly represent two of the elite minds in college football, and this matchup serves as meeting between a coach at the top of the mountain and one of the coaching industry’s most significant challengers trying to knock him off that perch.
Alabama kickers Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster have combined to convert 15-of-20 field goal attempts this season (with Shelley making all 11 of his kicks), and punter Cody Mandell booted 17 of his 46 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
The Tide’s return units had an up and down season, but receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones (no relation) possess the ability to make things happen in the return game when given the opportunity.
Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza connected on 23-of-31 field goal tries, including five clutch kicks in the Irish’s 22-13 victory over USC that punched their ticket to the national title game. Punter Ben Turk has been solid, averaging more than 40 yards per punt this season.
Irish sophomore George Atkinson III has not been as productive in the return game as he was a year ago (averaging more than 26 yards per return and taking two kicks back for scores in 2011), but his blazing speed makes him a threat the Tide will have to prepare for.
With field position likely to play a vital role in gaining a leg up in a game between two evenly matched clubs, how do both teams measure up against one another in the third phase of the game?
Additionally, how will the chess match between two of the country’s finest coaching staffs unfold?
Find out as I wrap up this series by comparing the special teams units and coaching staffs for the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish.
Since booting five field goals in last season’s national title game against LSU, Shelley has been lights out for the Tide in his senior season.
Mandell averaged nearly 44 yards per punt, and his penchant for pinning teams deep in their own territories have already proven to give the Tide an edge in big games—with three such punts helping stave off Georgia in the SEC title game.
The main potential weakness could arise if the Tide has to rely on Foster for long-distance field goals, considering he has more misses (five) than successful attempts (four) this season.
While Alabama has been solid in limiting opponents’ yardage in covering punts, the kickoff coverage unit has allowed nearly 22 yards per return. That figure isn’t terrible, but it isn’t good either (the Tide ranks 77th nationally in that category).
Both Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones are elusive return men with the ability to make tacklers miss in space, but both have had issues with holding on to the ball at different points this season.
Brindza and Turk are veteran kickers (both are seniors) that have come up big at various points this season.
Brindza’s aforementioned heroics against USC sealed the Irish’s trip to Miami, while just 10 of Turk’s 48 punts were able to be returned this season.
Atkinson gives the Irish a game-changing weapon to lead its return units.
However, Brindza has had hiccups, missing at least one attempt in seven games this season—with half of his misses coming from less than 40 yards away.
Atkinson’s reputation is based off a stellar freshman season, but his numbers this season have dipped considerably.
Punt returner Davonte Neal has averaged less than three yards per return on 18 attempts this season, which means the Irish don’t have a consistent threat to flip the field when they force Alabama to punt.
Saban has transformed a program that was mired in a nearly two-decade slump and turned it into the premier power in the country.
The Tide’s head coach also sports a 3-0 record in BCS title games and is looking to help the Tide become the first program to claim three crystal footballs in the BCS era.
Saban lost two assistants from his 2011 staff (offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and linebackers coach Sal Sunseri) and a host of talented players to the NFL, but they have managed to adapt and keep their program playing at a championship level.
The Tide’s staff has been a step ahead of their challengers during their recent run of success, and their body of work this season may have been the staff's best coaching job since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007.
New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has helped the offense get the passing game into gear, but he has had moments this season where he has abandoned the run in critical moments.
Additionally, Saban will have to deal with another assistant (defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt, who will be the next defensive coordinator at Florida State) that is also preparing to move on immediately following the title game.
Pruitt's loss is offset by retaining defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who is widely regarded as one of the nation's top assistants.
That, plus the experience of dealing with the same scenario (of having coaches hired away before a bowl game) last season should help quell any concerns for the game against the Irish.
Similar to Saban, Kelly has transformed a once-dormant powerhouse and helped them regain relevancy in three years—with the Irish playing for their first national title since 1988.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco—the 2012 recipient of the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach—has played a significant role in giving the Irish a physical identity on that side of the ball.
The entire staff deserves credit for getting it done on the recruiting trail and developing the talent while changing the culture and reestablishing the program on the national level.
Similar to Alabama’s staff, this group of coaches has done an outstanding job scheming all season and keeping their team focused on the march to Miami.
However, if there’s one area where Kelly and his staff fall short of their counterparts from Tuscaloosa, it’s their lack of experience on the big stage.
But, given what they have been able to accomplish this season, Kelly can continue his club’s season of silencing the doubters by completing an unbeaten season with a win on Jan. 7.
Mandell is a weapon that can help the Tide earn the upper hand when it comes to field position.
With two elite defenses taking center stage in this matchup, the hidden yards in the return game could dictate which offense is ultimately going to break through.
His uncanny ability to leave opponents with a long field is an underappreciated asset that could give the Tide an edge in this game.
Atkinson is one of the fastest players in the nation—a fact illustrated by him running a 10.36 in the preliminary round of the 100-meter dash (fifth-fastest time for a college football player according to his bio) at last season’s Big East Indoor Championships.
Although he has been held largely in check this season as a kick returner, defending a player with his explosive ability is still a significant threat to the Tide’s special teams unit.
As his 2011 statistics show, Atkinson is a player capable of taking a small crease and taking it to the house, and his explosiveness represents the best returner option for either club in this game.
One of the most talked-about topics entering this game is Saban’s history of having his team prepared to play in BCS title games.
It is something probably already ingrained in the mind of Irish sophomore quarterback Everett Golson—who will try to become the first quarterback to reverse what has been a trend of dominance for Saban-coached teams in title games.
In three previous title game appearances (all wins, including his 2003 title team at LSU), his teams have outscored their opponents 79-35.
The Crimson Tide are 4-1 in bowl games under Saban, with their wins coming by an average of three touchdowns.
It’s also worth noting that Saban excels at getting his team to be the aggressor in big games, and his history shows that he will not be afraid to roll the dice and call a fake punt or field goal when the situation presents itself.
While the Irish enter this game unblemished, Saban has proven time and again that he is nearly unbeatable with at least a month to prepare for a big game.
Kelly is trying to become the fifth Irish head coach to capture a national championship in his third season leading the Golden Domers.
While he does not have Saban’s extensive background in BCS title games, Kelly is attempting to lead a third different program to an unbeaten season.
Kelly has a pair of Division II national championships under his belt from his stint at Grand Valley State (Mich.), but he’s turned around programs at Central Michigan and Cincinnati prior to arriving in South Bend.
He is undoubtedly one of college football’s best and most creative offensive minds, and his ability to find favorable matchups for his club on that side of the ball will be key against a rugged Tide defense.
Given the trajectory of his career since he’s entered the FBS level, a win over Saban and the Tide would vault Kelly into the realm of the sport’s elite coaches.
Cade Foster vs. George Atkinson III
With less than half of Foster's kickoffs resulting in touchbacks (42 touchbacks in 92 attempts), Atkinson will likely be presented with a golden opportunity to make an impact on this game.
Alabama has allowed one kickoff return for a score this season, but given the elite caliber of athletes on their roster and the high stakes involved, expect the Tide’s coverage units to bring their best effort in trying to contain Atkinson.
Doug Nussmeier vs. Bob Diaco
The chess match between Nussmeier and Diaco will serve as a showcase between two of the nation’s top up-and-coming assistants that could become head coaches sooner than later.
Alabama’s offense will try to remain balanced, which is a strategy that has helped Nussmeier's unit score more than 30 points in 11 of its 13 games this season.
However, Diaco has assembled an aggressive and dynamic front seven that is largely responsible for allowing only one opponent score more than 17 points on them all year.
Saban vs. Kelly
Another national title would give Saban a fourth championship and cement his place in history as one of college football’s greatest coaches of all time.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s first national title would be the equivalent of what Saban was able to accomplish for the Tide back in 2009.
In a game full of intriguing subplots, the matching of wits between Saban and Kelly ranks as one of the main attractions for college football’s main event.