There's no way to tell who will make the most important play or the most significant decision in when Alabama and Notre Dame meet tonight in the BCS National Championship Game. Part of the fun in watching sports is that there's always room for someone or something you don't see coming turning an entire game and a season upside down. But if we had to guess who would make the call or the move on which a championship will be won tonight, it will probably be one of these people.
EDDIE LACY & T.J. YELDON
At this point, it's hard to single out either Eddie Lacy or T.J. Yeldon based on their achievements on the field. Both have 1,000-yard seasons -- Lacy has 1,182 while Yeldon hit the number on the nose -- and they've combined for 27 rushing touchdowns. Lacy averages 6.4 yards per carry; Yeldon, 6.5. One of the things that has made the Alabama rushing game so potent this year -- it's ranked second in the SEC -- is that the Tide have two backs that would each be the sole starter for almost any other team in the nation.
Somewhere near the midpoint of the season, Amari Cooper started receiving the ball more than once or twice a game. And became a crucial cog in the Tide's run to a national title. After having nine catches in the first four games of the season, Cooper got eight in the Ole Miss game alone -- and turned them into 84 yards and two touchdowns. Against Tennessee, he had seven grabs for 162 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He played well in the defeat against Texas A&M, with six grabs for 136 yards and a score, then put together 13 catches for 237 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games, including a score against Georgia in a game when Alabama needed all the points it could get. If the Alabama passing game is going to make in-roads against Notre Dame, it's going to need a breakout performance from the team leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as well as the second-ranked player in terms of yards per catch.
The chances that AJ McCarron is going to do anything to absolutely floor you in this game are pretty remote. That's not how McCarron is expected to play and not how he plays the game. Instead, McCarron is ruthlessly and lethally efficient. With a passer rating of 173.08, he is the second most efficient quarterback in the FBS. He has thrown 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 286 attempts this year. And while McCarron isn't going to be mistaken for Johnny Manziel any time soon -- McCarron finished the season with minus-5 yards rushing -- he can run for a few yards when he needs to. In other words, he's pretty much the ideal Nick Saban quarterback.
Notre Dame technically categorizes Everett Golson as a sophomore "who did not play and preserved a year of eligibility," or what the rest of us common folk would refer to as a redshirt freshman. However you want to label the Irish's starting quarterback, he's had a pretty good year for a first-year signal-caller, going 166-of-282 for 2,135 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions in 11 games, ten of them starts. Those numbers aren't going to get you a trip to New York City -- one of Golson's teammates had that particular achievement covered -- but they are good enough when your defense is one of the best in the nation. Golson can also make things happen with his legs; with 305 rushing yards, he ranks fourth on the team and is tied for the lead with five rushing touchdowns.
He might not have won the Heisman Trophy, but Manti Te'o still had arguably the greatest individual defensive season in college football this year and one of the better ones in recent memory. Te'o is credited with 103 tackles -- which leads his team by 42 -- and seven interceptions. He also recovered two fumbles, broke up four more passes, rushed the quarterback four times and had 1.5 sacks among his 5.5 tackles for loss. All of this while leading the top scoring defense and fifth-ranked total defense in the country.
It's a little bit strange that Brian Kelly has the reputation of moving from job to job in college football, considering he stayed at his first stop for 13 seasons. Before Kelly coached Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he was the head man at Grand Valley State, winning two national titles and five conference championships during his tenure. But once Kelly got started up the career ladder, he kept going at a rapid rate, spending three seasons at Central Michigan and three seasons with the Bearcats before deciding to head to South Bend. Kelly, who was 16-10 at Notre Dame coming into 2012, has had one losing season during his head coaching career.
The Head Coach
Anyone who thought that Nick Saban would be threatening Bear Bryant's roost as the best coach in Alabama history when he can to Tuscaloosa in 2007 was drinking a particularly strong brand of crimson Kool-Aid. But while Saban will likely never pile up as much hardware as Bryant did over his 25 years leading Alabama, there's an argument to be made that what Saban is doing now is nearly as impressive as what Bryant did in his heyday. Bryant came to prominence in an era when scholarship restrictions were not quite as limiting as they were now and it was easier to stockpile talent. And, of course, the media glare and instant scrutiny of everything the Alabama head coach does was not nearly as great as it is now. And while he's had one or two more games some seasons in which to do it, Saban has already replicated one of the feats Bryant did -- having 10 wins in five consecutive seasons. The Bear won a single national title in that period (1971-75). If Saban wins tonight, he will have three national titles in four seasons -- something Bryant never did.