We’re down to the last game of the season, and as most observers—though admittedly not me—expected in August, Alabama is playing on Monday night in Miami to win its third BCS National Championship Game in four years (8 PM ET, ESPN). As no one expected, Notre Dame is joining them. As we’ve done for all the major bowl games, let’s walk the path each team trod through the season and examine how the Tide and Irish match up.
Alabama’s opening game with Michigan was a hyped battle in Dallas, but the Tide dominated every which way, controlling the line of scrimmage and intercepting Denard Robinson three times, en route to a 41-14 win. From there, Alabama steamrollered bowl teams in Western Kentucky and Ole Miss, along with bad teams in Arkansas and Florida International. The ‘Bama defense completely dominated, and though the offense was kind of up and down, it kicked into gear in consecutive road routs of Missouri and Tennessee.
Through no fault of Alabama’s, the schedule hadn’t been that tough. The Big Ten in general and Michigan in particular weren’t as good as advertised. Arkansas turned into a train wreck and even Florida International, normally a competitive Sun Belt program, fell off the map. November would be challenge month.
The first challenge was then-undefeated Mississippi State at home and Alabama rolled 38-7. Then cracks started to appear in the armor. A road trip to LSU saw the Tigers establish the run and from there beat the Alabama pass defense, even though the Tide rallied late for a 21-17 win. They weren’t as fortunate the following week, as Texas A&M followed the same model and Johnny Manziel all but won the Heisman with a 29-24 upset.
A crazy night of November 17, when Kansas State and Oregon both fell, re-opened the door to Alabama and for the second straight year, Nick Saban was poised to survive a November home loss. They bulldozed overmatched Western Carolina and Auburn, 49-0 each time. Then the SEC Championship Game with Georgia served as a de facto national semifinal. The Bulldogs followed the road map of LSU & Texas A&M, in running the ball with Todd Gurley and throwing it well with Aaron Murray. But Alabama’s own running game, led by two 1,000-yard backs in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, was simply unstoppable and the Tide won 32-28.
Notre Dame opened its season in Dublin and played terrific run defense against a good option team in Navy and won 50-10. The defense was similarly stout against Purdue, though it required a big game from freshman quarterback Everett Golson to escape with a 20-17 win. Golson had gotten the opportunity to start the opener after expected starter Tommy Rees was temporarily suspended, and save for a few occasional moments, Golson never gave the job back.
A tough six-game schedule awaited, and Notre Dame started by taking out Big Ten bowl teams in Michigan State and Michigan. The Irish shut down bruising Spartan runner Le’Veon Bell and, like Alabama, they intercepted Denard Robinson. After a week off, the Irish went to Soldier Field and ran all over Miami, a 41-13 rout. They played better, more physical teams back in South Bend and were lucky to survive. A 20-13 overtime win over Stanford was marked by controversy, as there was dispute whether a potential tying touchdown by the Cardinal had broken the plane of the goal line on fourth down. A win over the Cougars was 17-14 and keyed by a strong ground attack. The tough schedule sequence was capped by an eye-opening 30-13 win on the road at Oklahoma. This was on the same night as Game 3 of the World Series and the Notre Dame rush defense was the only unit in bigger lockdown mode than the San Francisco Giants’ pitching staff.
Most of us assumed that Notre Dame would steamroll a trio of Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest, but the Panthers put the scare of ND’s life into them and should have won the game, if not for a shanked field goal in overtime. Notre Dame survived some shaky rush defense, the gimme field goal and won 29-26 in triple overtime. Then the offense went sleepwalking through a 21-6 win in Boston College, before awakening to pummel Wake.
The season-ending road trip to USC had steam taken out of it by the Trojans’ disappointing season and an injury to Matt Barkley, but it was still Notre Dame’s play-in game. They got back to controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, played error-free and won 22-13.
Thus, we come to Monday night and the last battle for the national championship. For older Tide fans, the chance to win a third crown in four years against Notre Dame has to be seen as fitting justice. Alabama was denied a third straight title in 1966 when a ‘Bama team that went unbeaten and won the Orange Bowl was voted behind the Irish, who played #2 Michigan State to a tie and didn’t go to a bowl. Alabama was robbed in ’66.
Then in 1977, the vote came down to Alabama and Notre Dame after a wild New Year’s Day. Notre Dame, by virtue of pounding the consensus #1 team in Texas 38-10 in Dallas, won the vote. I won’t say Alabama got robbed, but they had a legitimate case of their own—certainly when you come into the bowls #3 in the country, beat Ohio State 35-6 and see the top two teams lose, you have to wonder what more else you could have done. When Alabama won titles in 1978 and 1979, it was the second time a three-peat had been cut off by the Irish.
It’s not three in a row that’s on the line tonight, but its close enough. And while the Las Vegas bookmakers have little doubt about this game, installing Alabama as a 7.5 point favorite, I don’t see it that way. Alabama has not dominated good teams who can establish the run, and Notre Dame fits that category. While Golson is certainly not the quarterback Manziel is, he’s also better than LSU’s Mettenberger, and if he plays as well as the LSU quarterback did against ‘Bama, then Notre Dame is going to win.
The question I have is how Notre Dame’s defensive success is going to translate against SEC competition. The nation’s power conference is 5-3 in bowls so far, so they haven’t been unstoppable. But while Notre Dame’s schedule has been very good, it’s still been a heavy diet of the Big Ten and ACC. Outside that grouping, USC was a disappointment, Stanford hadn’t yet made the quarterback change that would change its season when they were in South Bend, and Oklahoma looked absolutely horrific in Friday night’s Cotton Bowl thrashing by Texas A&M.
I still have no doubt regarding a pick against the spread. I’ll take Notre Dame and the points. I think this one is coming down to the wire and I’m giving the Irish defense the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to pull the trigger and pick an outright upset, but the contrast between A.J. McCarron and Everett Golson is just too stark. McCarron’s shown an ability to throw the ball down the field, especially to Amari Cooper and to do without making mistakes. The ‘Bama sophomore has only thrown three interceptions all year. That’s the difference in a 20-17 win that sends Nick Saban into the NFL with another national title (that’s a little bonus prediction on there at the end).
Outright Winner: Alabama
Pointspread Winner: Notre Dame
Totals Line: Under 40.5
BOWL HANDICAPPING RECORD (THROUGH JANUARY 5)
Outright Winners: 17-15
Pointspread Winners: 13-18-1
Totals Line: 17-15
*Did not pick Rose Bowl, due to fan bias towards Wisconsin