Alabama vs. Notre Dame, 2013 BCS National Championship preview: Burning questions and 13-man defense

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The wait is over. Alabama and Notre Dame kick off at 8:30(ish) p.m. ET on ESPN. SBNation.com's Bill Connelly and FootballStudyHall.com's Mike Nixon preview.

There is, and should always be, a certain level of excitement and buildup for the BCS title game, even if (as in 2011) it's a matchup a lot of us don't want to see. But when it's a battle between perhaps college football's two most storied programs, it feels like the biggest game of the last decade. We expected Alabama to be here; Nick Saban has crafted a level of play comparable to any Alabama has ever produced over a five-year period (even Bear Bryant in the 1970s). With impeccable recruiting, the Tide can plug almost any hole the NFL Draft creates in their two-deep without missing a beat.

Notre Dame, however, is playing for its first title in 24 seasons. The Irish damn near won another title in 1993, but they have finished in the Top 10 just once since then. Nearly two decades of mediocrity (by Notre Dame standards), frustration, fired coaches and the same, silly old questions -- Can Notre Dame attract elite talent with its academic standards? Is the schedule too tough? Et cetera. -- have plagued the Irish. But now, after a blessed run that combined elite play with a little bit of close-game luck (as any title contender needs), here they are, one win from a title.

These teams have all the history you could want, with a healthy dash of animosity, from culture clashes, to the 1966 national title (Notre Dame played for a tie against Michigan State and was still given the national title over 11-0 Bama), to a series of Notre Dame wins in the 1970s that prevented the Tide from even more national titles. They haven't faced off since 1987, and here they are in the biggest game in the year.

Alabama and Notre Dame. The wait is finally over.

One burning question for Notre Dame: Can the Irish stretch the 'Bama secondary?

I wrote this a month ago:

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 Fremeau, 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?

With 8:29 left in a tie game against Oklahoma, Notre Dame pulled off a perfect play-action bomb. Everett Golson stepped up into the pocket and placed a perfect pass to a reasonably well-covered Chris Brown for 50 yards. Five plays later, Notre Dame was up seven points. The Irish would go on to win by 17. It was so well-done, so natural-looking that it gave viewers the impression that this was a rather common occurrence. In fact, it was the longest pass of the season for the Irish and one of only four that gained more than 40 yards. (It was also one of only two catches by Brown, a true freshman, in 2012.)

Notre Dame toed an interesting line in 2012. With the rare exception of play-action passes (for the season, they completed passes of more than 25 yards just five times on second- or third-and-4 or fewer), the Irish did exactly what they needed to do offensively and nothing more. We don't necessarily know what they can and cannot do, only what they did and didn't. One encouraging note: The more yards-to-go that Notre Dame faced, the better the Irish passed. With fewer than five yards to go for a first down, Notre Dame completed just 23 of 44 passes (52 percent) for 329 yards, with three sacks and a per-attempt average of just 6.9 yards. With more than 10 yards to go, the Irish completed 21 of 37 passes (57 percent) for 306 yards. Yards per attempt: 7.6 yards. As with the pass against Oklahoma, Notre Dame quite often looked good passing the ball, especially after some early-season growing pains for Golson. But with the Irish defense in the offense's corner, the Irish didn't exactly feel the need to take too many risks.

Needless to say, there might be some risk involved if the Irish are placed in must-pass situations against Alabama. The Crimson Tide rank second in the country in Passing S&P+, first on passing downs. The Tide were torched, briefly, by LSU and Texas A&M in different ways, and while Everett Golson certainly doesn't have the arm strength of LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, he might have some semblance of the mobility-and-accuracy combination with which A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was able to move the ball against Alabama.

Again, we don't necessarily know what Notre Dame can't do, only what the Irish have done. If Golson is finding open receivers on third-and-8, that significantly changes the complexion of the game. And if Golson is able to get downfield with some of his passes, that possibly makes the Irish the favorite.

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One burning question for Alabama: Who wins Lacy-Te'o?

Okay, that's a grossly oversimplified way of asking how well Alabama will run the ball. From my first Notre Dame-Alabama piece:

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.

Run, run, run, play-action bootleg pass for six yards, run, run, play-action bomb down the sideline. Alabama's pro-style attack is not the most unpredictable offense you've ever seen, but with the incredible talent at their disposal -- from quarterback A.J. McCarron, to two great runners in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, to game-breaking freshman receiver Amari Cooper, to what might be college football's best offensive line (led by 2011 Outland Award winner Barrett Jones) -- the Tide don't need to get funky to move the ball. They're going to do what they do, and you probably aren't going to stop it. Just ask Georgia.

Notre Dame, however, is not Georgia. Alabama ranks fourth in the country in Rushing S&P+? That's fine; Notre Dame's defense ranks seventh. Alabama ranks eighth in Passing S&P+? Okay, Notre Dame's defense ranks 11th. Notre Dame's is the best run defense Alabama has faced and the second-best pass defense (behind LSU, which held the Tide to 5.7 yards per pass attempt despite Alabama's late, pass-heavy, go-ahead touchdown drive). The Irish defense is a completely different monster than anything Bama has faced in 2012.

Not every 3-4 defense is alike. From a 3-4 look, you can either choose to attack the backfield with voracity or play as passively as possible. Alabama falls somewhere in the middle, and Notre Dame skews significantly toward the latter. The Tide rarely rush more than four defenders at the passer (until third-and-long, anyway, when they send five or six and get to your quarterback within about 0.4 seconds), but you never really know where those four pass rushers are going to come from. The Tide are not infinitely aggressive, but they are wild and crazy compared to Notre Dame, which features probably the best 3-4 line in the country (it is difficult to improve on ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore and tackle Louis Nix III), one that is both active enough to generate fierce pressure on its own (those three players have combined for 29 tackles for loss and 21.5 sacks) and big enough to occupy and entire offensive line by itself (the three average 6'4, 312 pounds).

Notre Dame, of course, also features an inside linebacker so good that he almost won the Heisman. Manti Te'o's stats may be some of the oddest you'll see from a star linebacker, but they reflect the odd, complete game Te'o brings to the table. Te'o plays the role, basically, of two different linebackers on any given play: a run-stopper and a third safety; meanwhile, the three-man line plays the role of four linemen. Good luck, then, against that 13-man defense. As with the Notre Dame offense, the Irish defense doesn't take any more risks than it has to, and why should it? The Irish can generate a numbers advantage on virtually every play of the game without doing anything crazy.

Only three opponents have averaged even 5.0 yards per play against Notre Dame this year: Navy (5.7, mostly after the Irish had built a solid lead), Miami (5.4, again mostly after the Irish had built a solid lead) and USC (5.5). Meanwhile, Alabama has been held under 6.3 yards per play just once all year (4.7 against Ole Miss, strangely enough). Alabama does what it does, and it works. But can the Tide carve out the same advantages against a 13-man Irish defense?

Mike Nixon on potential fireworks

With just one game remaining in the college football season, it’s fun to look back at preseason preview pieces to see just how much things have changed since the summer. Below are short preseason previews from SB Nation about the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

As predicted, Alabama once again reloaded with the help of five-star talent and overcame the loss of several key contributors from last year’s historically dominant defense. The Crimson Tide currently find themselves exactly where many pundits predicted they would be: ranked second in the nation and ready to defend their BCS Championship. Despite being correct about the Crimson Tide, however, many pundits thought the eventual title game opponent would be USC, LSU, or Oklahoma.

Defying preseason logic, Alabama will instead be facing Notre Dame. Unlike Alabama, whose season played out exactly as many thought it would, Notre Dame blocked out the preseason chatter about its previously putrid offense and expected middle-of-the-road results. The Fighting Irish instead rode an unexpectedly dominant defensive unit (many thought it would be good, just not this good) through a gauntlet of a schedule, eventually finishing the regular season undefeated and earning a spot in the BCS Championship Game.

For the second consecutive season, the title game consists of two teams best identified by their defenses. While Alabama’s offense is a bit more explosive than it was last season, there is no question that both the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish find themselves in Miami because of the strength of their defenses.

It is hard to imagine that either team will score over 20 points in this contest. On the season, Alabama’s defense has given up just 10.7 points per game, while Notre Dame’s gave up just 10.3. But if you dig a little deeper in those numbers, you can find a ray of hope for fans of offensive football that may still be scarred from Jordan Jefferson’s remarkably poor performance in last year’s title game.

Over the course of the season, Alabama faced five teams that finished the regular season with a winning record. Against those five opponents, the Crimson Tide defense gave up 19.0 points per game, almost nine points higher than their season average. Shutouts against offensive juggernauts like Western Kentucky, Arkansas (without Tyler Wilson), Western Carolina, and Auburn tend to drive the season average down. This isn’t to say the Alabama defense isn’t elite, but it might suggest that this year’s defense is not on the same level as last season’s, one that did not allow more than 14 points in a game versus an FBS opponent.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, has seen less variation between good and bad opponents. Against six opponents who finished the regular season with a winning record, Notre Dame gave up just 10.3 points per game, exactly the same as its season average. This year, Alabama and Notre Dame had one common opponent: Michigan. Alabama held the Wolverines to 14 points in their season opener, while Notre Dame held them to six points just three weeks later. Meanwhile, Notre Dame held Oklahoma to just 13 points, 25.2 points below the Sooners' season average, in Norman as well.

Since both Alabama and Notre Dame ranked in the Top 25 in the nation in turnover margin, it would come as no surprise if it were a takeaway or even a defensive score that eventually determined the outcome of this contest.

Despite the expected defensive dominance in the game, there should be several fun matchups to watch. When the Crimson Tide have the ball, be sure to watch their pair of 1,000 yard rushers, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, against linebacker, and Heisman Trophy runner-up, Manti Te’o. Success on the ground could open up some shots downfield via the play-action. When the Fighting Irish have the ball, we'll see if quarterback Everett Golson can play like a poor man’s Johnny Football Heisman, extending plays with his legs like Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in an effort to allow his receivers to find space amid Alabama’s talented secondary.

While it is likely there will be more than a fair share of three-and-outs throughout the title game, the improvement of Alabama’s offense this season, combined with the slightest of steps back from the Tide's defense, will hopefully mean a repeat of last season’s terrible (offensively) title game will be avoided. For as fun as college football is to watch, given its wide-open offenses and high-scoring affairs, let’s hope this BCS title game does not once again look like it belongs in the 1940’s.

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