Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Saban has accomplished something only Nebraska's Tom Osborne and Notre Dame's Frank Leahy had managed in the poll era: a third national title in four years. Let's look back at the Tide's most dominant title game performance yet.
2. Passes broken up by Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner. Notre Dame's early-game strategy was obvious: punch the bully in the mouth. The Irish were ultra-aggressive on both sides of the ball, selling out to stop the run on defense and taking early shots downfield on offense against the Tide's best cornerback. The problem was, none of it worked.
First, the Irish defense forgot that Alabama could pass, too. On the second play of the game, on second-and-9 (a passing down, mind you), quarterback A.J. McCarron found Kevin Norwood for 29 yards on an easy, play-action pitch-and-catch. Three plays later, Bama led by seven. Meanwhile, after a short pass to T.J. Jones, Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson threw intermediate lobs to tight end Tyler Eifert, who was lined up against Milliner, two straight times. The first one was caught out of bounds, and the second was (just barely) broken up by Milliner. (Eifert eventually caught the pass but was juggling it ever so slightly on the way down.) Notre Dame punted, fell victim to a questionable kick catching interference call, and soon trailed 14-0. For all intents and purposes, that was the ballgame.
Notre Dame continued to attempt to pick on Milliner as the game progressed, and while it occasionally worked (freshman DaVaris Daniels did end up catching six of 11 passes for 115 yards, some of which came against Milliner), it also failed a lot. Milliner broke up one other pass, forced some uncatchable throws with tight coverage, and, early in the second half, deflected a pass that was eventually picked off by Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.
One has to respect Notre Dame for going right at Goliath. One also has to pity the results.
7.5. Alabama's first-half yards per play. In the end, Notre Dame's offense acquitted itself at least reasonably well. The Irish couldn't even pretend to run the ball (Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood combined to gain 39 yards on 14 carries), but even while they were falling behind by four touchdowns in the first half, they were still averaging 5.0 yards per play on offense. That wasn't good enough, but against Alabama it wasn't bad. (They averaged 5.9 per play in the second half.) The problem was that Notre Dame was the only one of the two teams following the, "This is going to be a tight, defensive battle," blueprint. Alabama, meanwhile, was just cramming the ball down Notre Dame's throat.
The Tide gained 309 yards in 41 first-half plays. That's a rather impressive total against anyone, really. But against a defense that had been allowing just 287 yards per game, one that allowed more than 309 yards in a game just twice in the regular season? That's near-perfection.
12.5. Average yards per target for Alabama wideouts. Near the line of scrimmage, the Notre Dame defense wasn't terrible. Nose tackle Louis Nix III logged a couple of tackles for loss, and the Irish caught Alabama running backs in the backfield a few times and snuffed out most of Alabama's short passing game. Bama tight ends caught four of five passes for just 22 yards, and Bama running backs caught three of five for 17. That's manageable. The problem, however, was that the Irish were getting destroyed downfield.
A.J. McCarron completed 13 of 18 passes to his wide receivers for 225 yards and two touchdowns. Bama's star freshman, Amari Cooper, caught six of eight for 105, a lot of which came against Notre Dame's star freshman, cornerback KeiVarae Russell. Kevin Norwood had his second straight great BCS title game, catching three of three passes for 66 yards, and Christion Jones caught two of three for 40. When the run game is working like Alabama's was -- and, on average, it was working: Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon combined to gain 248 yards on 41 carries -- it opens up the play-action pass. And when said play-action is coming against a somewhat iffy, conservative Notre Dame secondary, that's a problem.
Of course, it's not like these passes were all on second- or third-and-short. On passing downs (second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more), McCarron was 8-for-11 for 116 yards. It didn't really matter when he passed; it was going to work.
69.4. A.J. McCarron's completion percentage in two national title games. Including last year's 21-0 win over LSU, McCarron is now 43-for-62 for 498 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and two sacks in two BCS Championship appearances versus (previously) dominant defenses. That's ... well, that's really, really good.
107. Minutes between points allowed by Alabama in a BCS title game. In the 2009 national title game, Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert found Jordan Shipley for a 28-yard score to cut Alabama's lead to 24-21 with 6:15 left in the game. Alabama would then finish on a 13-0 run, shut out LSU two years later, 21-0, and go up 35-0 on Notre Dame Monday night. The Tide scored 69 points and allowed opponents to cross the 50-yard line just three times. Three!
Finally, with 4:08 remaining in the third quarter, Notre Dame scored and ended one of the most ridiculously impressive feats of the BCS (or any) era.
Perhaps Oregon head coach Chip Kelly decided to forego the challenge of the NFL because the challenge of scoring on Alabama in a BCS championship game is even more difficult.
And to think, Alabama was a tipped pass from beating Nebraska by 115 in the Capital One Bowl.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) January 8, 2013
Even when you are as detail- and process-oriented as Nick Saban, even when you recruit the best talent in the country, and even when you produce an absurdly consistent level of elite play, you still need fate on your side. You still need bounces here and there. If Oregon doesn't miss a field goal against Stanford, Alabama isn't in the BCS title game. If Ohio State isn't banned from the postseason, Alabama isn't in the BCS title game. And if Alabama's C.J. Mosley doesn't leap up and tip an Aaron Murray pass in the waning seconds of the SEC Championship Game, Alabama quite possibly isn't in the BCS title game.
For the third time in the poll era, a team has won three national titles in four seasons. Notre Dame did it in the 1940s, Nebraska did it in the 1990s, and now Alabama has done it. It is difficult to imagine a team more deserving of the feat than Saban and the Crimson Tide, which have figured out how to consistently combine a Miami-in-the-1980s level of talent with an Ohio-State-under-Woody-Hayes level of discipline. The Alabama of the 2010s is bigger than you, faster than you and smarter than you, and there's almost nothing you can do about it.
But just as Nebraska needed a Flea Kicker in 1997 (not to mention a split title) and a late surge versus Miami in the 1995 Orange Bowl to manage this extraordinary feat, Alabama still left much to chance. The Tide needed a late blocked field goal against Tennessee and a late score against Auburn to come away with the 2009 title. They needed Iowa State to improbably upset Oklahoma State to even play for the 2011 title, and they still barely squeaked in. And in 2012, they needed a late (and flawless) touchdown drive to beat LSU, then needed Kansas State (to Baylor) and Oregon (to Stanford) to fall after they lost to Texas A&M.
The narrative, justified and solidified by both numbers and its nearly flawless title game performances, is that Alabama has been the single most dominant team of the last two years. But it was really close to playing for neither title.
So much of the beauty of college football stems from the bounces, the way that karma, more than in any other sport, forces you to understand that you are not in control. When you succeed, you almost certainly earned it, but you were also kissed by fate, and you know it. You are privy to the twists and turns of not only your own games, but of so many others as well. (A playoff will rectify this to some degree, but it's only rectification if you consider it a bug.)
With college football, you feel a mystical force behind you at all times. Sometimes it clears the way for you, and sometimes it throws countless impediments in your way, and either way, you never know why you were chosen. You just know that you were chosen.
So Alabama has been chosen three times in four years. And now it continues. A.J. McCarron is only a junior and has already said he is returning to Alabama in 2013. Eddie Lacy might leave, but T.J. Yeldon will only be a sophomore next fall. Amari Cooper, one of college football's most complete receivers, will be just a sophomore. Two fantastic offensive linemen (center Barrett Jones, one of college football's greatest ever linemen, and guard Chance Warmack) depart, but three others return. Four senior starters on defense head to the pros, and some juniors (linebacker C.J. Mosley? Dee Milliner?) will almost certainly follow, but so many other difference-makers will be back in Tuscaloosa. The machine will hum once again.
Alabama will begin the 2013 season as either a national title favorite or the national title favorite. The Tide will face a trip to Texas A&M (almost guaranteed to be a preseason Top 5 team at this point) in mid-September, will host LSU in early November, and will face an almost certainly elite opponent in the SEC title game (if they make it that far).
Fate might smile on them once again, but we'll worry about that next fall. All we know is that we have witnessed the building of a dynasty, and it doesn't appear to be going anywhere.
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