Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Did you like last year's BCS National Championship Game? I hope you did, because you're about to see it again.
Tonight's national championship game will probably set some kinds of viewership records. Alabama and Notre Dame are among the bluest of college football's blue bloods with national followings. Their programs have been plot devices for major motion pictures. It's Yea Alabama versus Wake Up the Echoes; Rammer Jammer versus the leprechaun.
Here's the problem: it's most likely going to be a boring game by most people's standards. Remember last year's national championship game when one team had trouble moving the ball and the other couldn't seal the deal and had to kick field goals over and over? And then everyone not wearing crimson panned it as an awful game? Prepare to experience deja vu, my friends.
Let's take a broad view first. Alabama and Notre Dame have the two top scoring defenses in college football. The same was true last year of Alabama and LSU. The two of them are in the top five of total defense, as the Tide and Tigers were a year ago. If you prefer more advanced stats, don't worry. They're both in the top five of Bill Connelly's defensive S&P+ ratings, just like Bama and LSU last year. Offensive success should be hard to come by tonight.
Let's explore that point further and begin with the Irish. Something that became very clear when looking at how Alabama did against the other top SEC teams is that the way to attack its defense is through the air. Notre Dame's quarterback is Everett Golson, who played well against bad teams and struggled against good ones. It took him some time to fully banish Tommy Rees to the bench, and Rees is not good. I've seen a few people argue that Golson is mobile and so is Johnny Manziel and so therefore Alabama should watch out. Stop. Just, stop. This is Golson. This is Manziel. Johnny Football is better at every phase of the game. If mobility from the quarterback was all it took to give Bama's defense fits, then Michigan would not have gotten curb stomped in Week 1.
Alabama, meanwhile, has a pretty good overall offense. In the game it played against a defense comparable to Notre Dame's, and it was away in Baton Rouge no less, the Tide put up 331 yards of offense and 21 points. Only Oklahoma, a very good offensive team that runs the hurry-up, and Navy, mostly in garbage time of a blowout loss, put up more yards than that on Notre Dame. No one scored that many points in regulation on the Irish either. More importantly, A.J. McCarron is a much better quarterback than Golson is. If either the run or pass isn't working, Alabama can lean on the other with confidence. I don't know that Notre Dame can.
With that said, Alabama is not likely to get it in the end zone too often. Notre Dame has a famously good red zone defense, and it's true that it has only allowed two rushing touchdowns all year. When opponents do score on Notre Dame down there, it's more often field goals (13) than touchdowns (eight). By comparison, Alabama's opponents are far more likely to get a touchdown (14) than a field goal (three) when they do score. Of course, the Tide is better at both scoring and scoring touchdowns in the red zone, so this is no worse than a wash for Bama.
Put it all together, and it appears to me to be a formula for something like last year's national title game. Brian Kelly won't make some of the odd decisions that Les Miles did, or be as conservative, so I do expect Notre Dame to put some points on the board. However for the most part, I think we're getting a rerun. Alabama will move the ball some but stall out near the end zone and mostly kick field goals. Notre Dame will struggle to hold on and just gradually fall behind. The game won't get as harshly negative of reviews this time around because it's not two SEC teams going at it, but it's more likely to put casual fans to sleep than get their hearts racing.
Year2's pick: Alabama 16, Notre Dame 6