1. Alabama's defense could use a break.
Heading into the season, it was justifiable to expect at least some temporary regression from Alabama's incredible defense. The Crimson Tide had just lost so many strong contributors from last season, and getting players acclimated to new roles might take a little while. But then, for most of the first half of the season, the Bama defense played at a level as good as, or better than, anything it had established last season.
(Remember when we tried to pretend like Alabama had struggled against Ole Miss' no-huddle attack? Yeah, the Rebels gained a total of 218 yards. That's not "struggling.")
Over the last month or so, however, the Tide have shown some occasional vulnerability, leaking a few more yards and big plays than they had earlier in the season. Part of this obviously has something to do with the level of competition -- Texas A&M and Georgia have two of the best offenses in college football, so Alabama allowing a few big plays to them is not the same as allowing them to Auburn or Western Carolina. But … LSU?
Alabama has allowed more than 285 yards in just three games this season; all three have come in the last month. LSU gained 435 and scored 21 points, Texas A&M gained 418 and scored 29, and Georgia gained 394 and scored 28. These are not obscene totals for those offenses, but they are pretty obscene for Alabama.
When you are smoking hot, you don't want any break at all. When Oklahoma was scoring 60 points each week in 2008, the last thing they wanted to do was stop playing. But for Alabama, the break comes at a good time. The offense isn't incredibly timing-based (it especially wasn't versus Georgia; instead, it was brutality-based), and the defense needs some rest. I expect a better version of the Bama defense when this game kicks off in January.
2. How's your arm, Everett Golson?
In last week's Alabama-Georgia preview, I mentioned that Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray had the type of arm you need to beat Bama. The Tide will not let you beat them with dink-and-dunk passing -- they keep too many guys near the line of scrimmage, and they are just too fast -- but if you can both get guys open on the second level of the defense and get the ball to them rapidly, you can move the ball. As with LSU, most of Georgia's success came on these types of passes. (These types of routes also helped get Murray sacked a lot, but that's the price of doing business.)
But while I think most of us are underestimating the efficiency of Notre Dame's offense, the Irish might still be lacking in explosiveness out wide.
The only regular Irish pass target who averaged better than 8.5 yards per target is redshirt freshman DaVaris Daniels, who missed most of November with a shoulder injury but was expected back for the title game. Tight end Tyler Eifert has averaged 14.2 yards per catch this season, and receiver T.J. Jones has averaged a healthy 13.0. But neither are catching better than 60 percent of their passes, and Alabama has not been victimized much by tight ends this season. The recipe for success against Alabama this year has been super-speedy wideouts and a quarterback with either NFL-caliber arm strength (Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray) or ridiculous accuracy (Johnny Manziel). For all of Everett Golson's strengths, and he has plenty, I'm not sure he can match these quarterbacks in this way.
3. Can Notre Dame grind out points without big plays?
Again, Notre Dame's offense is probably better than you think. The Irish rank sixth in Off. F/+ this season, powered by a mix of efficiency, balance and strong play-calling. Their strength, however, is in methodical, mistake-free drives. According to my Football Outsiders colleague Brian Fremeua, the Irish rank 12th in the country in Methodical Drives (the percentage of each offense's drives that run 10 or more plays). They convert on third-and-manageable, they avoid passing downs, and they put points on the board.
But will that work against Alabama? Notre Dame also ranks 76th in Explosive Drives (the percentage of each offense's drives that average at least 10 yards per play). In Georgia's three scoring drives on Saturday, plus the near-score at the end, they averaged 9.2 yards per play. (Granted, one of the three drives was "methodical," i.e. 10 or more plays.) In their other eight possessions, they averaged 1.9 yards per play. Georgia both made big plays and converted those plays into points. Otherwise, their drives ground to a halt as soon as they began. Can Notre Dame pull off the methodical act against this defense?
4. Who avoids special teams disaster?
Notre Dame's best bet is to win a low-scoring, defense-and-field-position affair. They have pulled that off at times this season despite, really, a pretty poor special teams unit. The Irish rank just 89th in Special Teams F/+, with no return game of which to speak, but punter Ben Turk is a respectable 36th in Net Punting. Alabama, meanwhile, is 30th in Special Teams F/+ for the season but almost lost to Georgia because of three special teams plays (a failed Alabama fake punt, a successful Georgia fake punt and, most importantly, a blocked Alabama field goal that Georgia returned for a touchdown). If Alabama both avoids disaster and wins the kicks-related field position game, it will be difficult for Notre Dame to score enough to win without many big plays, even with a solid field goal kicker in Kyle Brindza.
5. Can Alabama neutralize Te'o?
Manti Te'o is probably the most unique linebacker in college football, not only because of his talent and general level of quality (absurdly high) but also because of the role he plays in this Notre Dame defense. At their best, the Irish have basically formed an umbrella, generating a solid pass rush while rushing just four defenders (including the occasionally dominant Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo), playing conservatively along the edges, and letting Te'o take care of anything that happens in the middle of the field. It isn't that simple, of course, but that's how it ends up appearing.
And Te'o's stat line is almost more like that of a safety than a linebacker: seven interceptions, four passes broken up, 5.5 tackles for loss (1.5 sacks), four quarterback hurries. Te'o spends most of his time within about 10 yards of the line of scrimmage but rarely behind the line of scrimmage. It is a unique role, and he plays it to perfection.
Because of Te'o's presence, it is very intimidating to throw anything over the middle against Notre Dame. Alabama, however, doesn't really do a lot of that. Sure, A.J. McCarron will dump to tight end Michael Williams and running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon about five times per game, but Alabama's passing game is generally rather vertical, designed to take advantage, both of defenders' attention to the run game and of star receiver Amari Cooper's incredible speed. Te'o is always going to be an asset, but it will be interesting to see the role he plays in this game. His importance will mostly be in helping to stop the run, but that doesn't take full advantage of the skill set he has demonstrated this season.
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