Critical games this weekend in the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC could go a long way in determining conference championships -- and maybe even playoff berths.
07 Jan 2013
by Matt Hinton
In any big, defining moment in life, there is something to be said for having been there before. That is, unless that moment is the BCS Championship Game, where past success has been a kiss of death. When Alabama takes the field on Monday night, it will be as the fifth defending champion of the BCS era within 60 minutes of a repeat. If the Crimson Tide bring home the crown against Notre Dame, they'll be the first to succeed.
The precedent is not encouraging. In 2000, a year after running the table at No. 1 from the first poll to the last, Florida State returned to the championship game as a double-digit favorite over Oklahoma, and failed to score on offense in a 13-2 flop. Two years later, Miami rode into the finale atop a 34-game winning streak, only to be wiped out by a 12-point underdog, Ohio State. USC, boasting not one but two Heisman Trophy winners in the same backfield in 2005, had taken 34 in a row before falling to Texas in the 2006 Rose Bowl. Florida, returning virtually the entire roster from its 2008 championship run, ran the table in 2009 before running into a crimson wall in the SEC Championship Game. In every case, the defending champs were regarded as indomitable titans barreling toward their destiny as one of the greatest teams ever assembled, right up until the moment they were stopped in their tracks. In every case they fell just a few plays short.
Which brings us to Alabama, a team with history within its grasp despite a late loss to Texas A&M and harrowing finishes against LSU and Georgia. Unlike its predecessors, whose repeat bids were all built around the same core of (mostly offensive) headliners that had claimed the title the previous season, the Crimson Tide "dynasty" is a triumph of a finely-honed system that transcends individual icons. The cornerstones of last year's championship team were only pups during the 2009 run, and subsequently left en masse for the NFL Draft. The defense alone lost six starters, four in the first two rounds, and the offense lost a Heisman finalist. Yet the 2012 Tide still led the nation in total defense, finished second in scoring defense, and improved its scoring average on offense by nearly a field goal per game. In Nick Saban's program, a revamped cast is no incentive to change the script.
All that's left now is to take the final step against a heavy underdog that no one (save maybe Lou Holtz) expected to be in this position. The Fighting Irish are the first team in BCS history to make the final game despite beginning the season unranked. They're also built in Alabama's image, around a disciplined, hard-boiled defense that compensated for a lack of firepower offensively by yielding fewer points than any other team in the nation. Seven of Notre Dame's twelve opponents in the regular season failed to score an offensive touchdown, and none scored more than two. Saban often talks about judging his team by its own standard of excellence rather than the scoreboard, and in this case the message is quite literal: To etch its name among the sport's true dynasties, his team must defeat a version of itself.
The Crimson Tide have been claiming national championships for more than 80 years, and at no point in that span have they ever been –- or aspired to be -– anything other than downhill, between-the-tackles grinders. It was true in an era when Alabama was considered a quarterback factory to the next level, and a decade into the spread revolution, it remains as true as ever. Equipped with a deep, blue-chip backfield running behind an NFL-bound offensive line, the 2012 Tide kept the ball on the ground on more than 63 percent of their offensive snaps (65.5 percent on standard downs) and produced two 1,000-yard rushers, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, for the first time in school history. They averaged fewer passes per game (23.1) than all but nine other offenses nationally, five of which run the triple option. Along with Florida, they were one of only two teams in the SEC that gained more yards rushing than passing.
On that front, Bama was never better than in its last game, a physical, methodical bludgeoning of Georgia with the SEC title and a ticket to Miami on the line. After a slow start, five of the Crimson Tide's final seven possessions against UGA resulted in points, via four touchdowns and a field goal. On those five scoring drives, they ran 25 plays for 303 yards. Of those 25 plays, 22 were carries by Lacy and Yeldon, for 243 yards –- a little more than 80 percent of the total, on more than 11 yards per carry. For the game, Lacy and Yeldon combined for 334 and three touchdowns on 7.4 per carry, and Alabama racked up a 15-minute edge in time of possession. On the rare nights Nick Saban allows himself to dream about offense, this is what he sees: A squad of alpha mashers seizing huge chunks of territory at will, by brute force.
The flip side of that coin, though, is that the success of the ground game helped facilitate one of the most lethally-efficient passing attacks in the nation, to a much greater extent than in 2009 or 2011. Junior quarterback A.J. McCarron is no one's idea of a prototype, athletically, but he was nearly perfect within Alabama's run-first system, turning in a school record for pass efficiency (173.1) with 26 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. Fifteen of those scoring strikes covered at least 25 yards, to seven different receivers. His top three targets, Amari Cooper, Kenny Bell, and Kevin Norwood, all averaged upwards of 15 yards per catch, none of them bigger than the go-ahead, 45-yard bomb from McCarron to Cooper in the fourth quarter of the win over Georgia:
Prior to that throw, McCarron was en route to arguably his worst game of the season as a passer, including an ugly interception that thwarted a goal-to-go opportunity in the first half. He'd had virtually no success deep. But when defenses are forced to inch an eighth man toward the line of scrimmage against the run, as Georgia was after being pounded into submission, the end zone is only a play-action pass away.
The hard part on Monday will be convincing Notre Dame that its front seven needs the help, which it has not at any point this season: The Irish finished fourth nationally against the run, allowed a grand total of two rushing touchdowns (that's right, count 'em: two), and held the four best rushing offenses they faced –- Navy, Michigan, Stanford, and Oklahoma –- to a combined 3.3 yards per carry. Between future first-rounders Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt on the line and Manti Te'o at middle linebacker, ND has the muscle to hold its own on the line of scrimmage, which has proven invaluable to a considerably less-touted secondary that has nevertheless allowed fewer big plays than any other defense in the country. Of the nine touchdowns the Irish have allowed this season, only the first one, a 25-yard touchdown pass by Navy in the season opener, has come from outside of the red zone, and only two have come on drives that began inside the opposing 40-yard line.
The Big Question: Who controls the A-gap? If guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones are Alabama's irresistible force in the middle of the offensive line -– they were both consensus All-Americans, Jones for the second year in a row –- then Nix is Notre Dame's immovable object, a 340-pound colossus whose presence at nose guard is essential to keeping blockers off Te'o in the Irish's 3-4 scheme. Georgia's resident behemoth on the interior, 350-pound John Jenkins, gradually wore down beneath Bama's relentless push. If Nix suffers the same fate, the Irish will have to be content to bend against the run in an effort to avoid breaking downfield, or else leave the secondary working without a net against play-action. If he holds up, McCarron will be forced to shoulder a larger share of the offense with his arm, with a much greater margin of error.
Brian Kelly was hired three years ago as an offensive guru, steward of prolific, up-tempo spread schemes at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati, so it comes with a certain degree of irony that his breakthrough at Notre Dame has come with a deliberate, within-the-offense attack headed by a redshirt freshman quarterback. At their best, the Irish kept Everett Golson out of trouble by leaning heavily on the run and owning the clock, a formula that paid off in spades in wins over Miami (376 yards rushing, 39:02 in time of possession), Oklahoma (215 rushing, 32:28 possession), and USC (222 rushing, 34:38 possession). In all three of those games, the Irish broke a big play or two early, did not turn the ball over, and led throughout. Between Golson, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson III, Notre Dame was nearly as productive on the ground as Alabama, and every bit as balanced.
When they weren't at their best, though, the Irish were less consistent and had a lower floor. Against Michigan, a team Alabama had obliterated a few weeks earlier, ND managed just 94 yards rushing and a single touchdown despite six takeaways by the defense; Golson was picked off twice and benched for the only touchdown drive. It was the same story against Stanford, which forced three turnovers and held the Irish out of the end zone until the fourth quarter; again, Golson was on the bench for the game-tying field-goal drive at the end of regulation and the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame racked up 522 total yards, but it took 104 plays and three overtimes to get there after falling into a 20-6 hole over the first three quarters. Yet again, Golson found himself on the bench in the second half, before backup Tommy Rees proved equally ineffective and Golson was reinstated for the comeback. While they responded with their backs against the wall, too often they responded only with their backs against the wall.
It's difficult to separate the offense's gradual improvement over the course of the season (and Golson's improvement, in particular) from the gently sloping degree of difficulty over the second half of the schedule. Statistically speaking, the best defenses the Irish saw –- Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, and BYU -– all came in a five-game stretch from mid-September to mid-October, and the offense failed to top 20 points or 400 total yards in any of them. (In the latter case, it was only with Rees subbing for an injured Golson against BYU that they even came close.) Even against more forgiving defenses down the stretch, the Irish never found a reliable threat to stretch the field, and always wound up in a tooth-and-nail struggle when it turned the ball over more than once.
If there's a silver lining for Notre Dame against a defense with Alabama's pedigree, it's in the fact that the Tide endured some major blows to their monolithic reputation over the final month of the season. After two months of uncontested dominance, Bama was ripped for 435 yards in a near-upset at LSU, barely pulling out a 21-17 escape in the final minute; the Tigers held the ball for more than 39 minutes and outgained the Tide by more than 100 yards thanks to a career day from unproven quarterback Zach Mettenberger. A week later, Texas A&M did LSU one better, ringing up 418 yards in a 29-24 stunner in Tuscaloosa that propelled Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy. In the SEC Championship Game, Georgia put up 32 points on 394 yards of total offense, and came within a few seconds of punching its own ticket to Miami. The elusive 100-yard barrier fell in those games for a pair of true-freshman tailbacks, LSU's Jeremy Hill and Georgia's Todd Gurley, as well as for Manziel if you exclude sack yardage. Texas A&M's rushing total for the night, 165 yards, was more than any other SEC offense had managed against Alabama in more than two years, even if you count the sacks.
Obviously, Everett Golson is not Johnny Manziel. But he can do enough with his legs to extend drives and possibly catch someone in the secondary in a compromised position when he buys enough time to turn a play into a schoolyard scramble. In a low-scoring slugfest, a big play or two along with a sustained touchdown drive will be enough to keep the Irish within striking distance in the fourth quarter, where they've consistently risen to the occasion.
The Big Question: Touchdowns or field goals? As good as the Irish defense was in the red zone -– and it was very good, holding opposing offenses scoreless on 12 of 33 opportunities and to field goals on 13 more, good for the lowest red-zone touchdown rate in the nation -– the offense was every bit as bad. Despite the presence of a quintessential red-zone target in towering, athletic tight end Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame managed just 27 touchdowns on 58 trips inside opponents' 20-yard lines, making it one of only a handful of teams that failed to put the ball in the end zone in that situation more often than they succeeded. That can't hold against Alabama: Every opportunity for the Irish to score a touchdown against the Crimson Tide is a critical one, because it may be their last.
If the game comes down to a kicker, Alabama is in the capable hands –- er, feet -– of senior Jeremy Shelley, but only to a point. While Shelley was 11-for-11 this season on field goals (and 63-for-63 on extra points), he didn't attempt a kick longer than 38 yards, leaving everything from 40 and beyond to the decidedly less accurate Cade Foster. Still, Shelley was a perfect 5-for-5 in last year's championship win over LSU, including successful boots from 41 and 44 yards out, and he is more reliable than his Notre Dame counterpart, Nick Brindza, whose accuracy starts to go past 30 yards and is essentially a coin flip beyond forty. Neither has faced a game-winning kick in his career.
In the return game, both sides have potential game-breakers in Christion Jones and George Atkinson III, both of whom have taken kickoffs back for touchdowns in their careers. Alabama blocked three kicks (two field goals, one punt) to Notre Dame's one (a field goal); the Tide also had a field-goal attempt blocked, where the Irish did not. Both sides benefited hugely down stretch from missed field goals by LSU and Pittsburgh, respectively, without which they probably wouldn't be in this game. But they haven't made much happen in their own right: Neither side has demonstrated any penchant for big gambles, trick plays, or deviating from the script in any significant way. They haven't had any reason to.
It is fair to say Notre Dame's tide rises and falls to a very large extent on how well it takes care of the ball. It's a pretty simple equation: in the four games in which the Irish didn't commit a turnover, they beat Michigan State by 17 points (20-3), Miami by 38 points (41-3), Oklahoma by 17 points (30-13), and USC by nine points (22-13), all solid, convincing wins. In three games in which they committed two or more turnovers, they struggled with Michigan (13-6), Stanford (20-13 in overtime), and Pittsburgh (29-26 in triple overtime), the latter two in truly seat-of-their-pants fashion. The Irish have to take some chances, but they cannot afford to finish in the red.
The Big Question: Who responds to the big mistake? At some point, one side or the other will commit a killer gaffe –- a muffed punt, a snap over the quarterback's head, an ill-advised fake punt, etc. –- that has the potential to ruin its night. Whether it actually does depends on its response defensively, and whether it can avoid giving up a deflating touchdown in a game in which points figure to be at a premium. Statistically, the red-zone advantage belongs to the defenses. The offense that breaks that trend and capitalizes on its opportunities will have a major edge in hoisting the crystal ball.
Alabama opened as a 9.5-point favorite and remains a 9.5-point favorite, an impressive show of faith in the Crimson Tide's ability to score against a team that held half its opponents to ten points or less and never allowed more than 20 in regulation. Where Bama's defense began to show cracks down the stretch against the best teams on the schedule, Notre Dame's was always a rock. Again, against five opponents that appeared in the national polls at any point this season –- Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC -– the Irish allowed a grand total of 48 points on two offensive touchdowns. Even when they bent, they never broke.
Still, they have not faced an offense that runs between the tackles as effectively as Alabama, and there was not another offense this season that complemented the brawn with such a lethal play-action game. Overwhelming as they are on the offensive line, the Tide should not be able to shove around Notre Dame's front seven as easily as they did Georgia's in the SEC title game. If they're able to establish anything on the ground, though, they have the weapons outside to make the Irish pay for inching a safety toward the line -– a trick no other offense has been able to pull, and only Oklahoma and USC had the firepower to exploit if they had. More importantly, Alabama has an efficient, veteran quarterback who has proven himself on this stage before, opposite a redshirt freshman who was on the verge of losing his job over the first half of the season. The defense can hold up its end of an old-fashioned rope-a-dope that hinges on a single turnover or final possession, but the margin for error is too small. If Alabama does break through, it's hard to see how the Irish can keep up.
MATT: Alabama 26, NOTRE DAME 17.
F/+ : Alabama 24, NOTRE DAME 18.
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