It seems like it was just last week that we were kicking off the football season in late-summer heat. But here we are with one game left to play and another BCS championship on the line for the SEC.
Tonight’s title game will present a new challenge for the SEC. Aside from last year’s game between two conference foes, the SEC has faced mainly offense-first teams during its six-year championship run. Notre Dame, however, runs the ball and wins with its defense. The Irish have a strand or two of Southeastern Conference DNA.
But give Nick Saban a month to prepare for a team — any team — and it’s usually bad news for his opponent. Since 2000, his teams at LSU and Alabama have gone 7-3 in bowl games. A win tonight would give him (and Alabama) three BCS crowns in four years and two in a row. Toss in his 2003 championship at LSU and Saban would have won four BCS titles in 10 years… at two different schools… in the toughest league in America.
And for those who don’t believe the SEC really is as rough and tumble as its cracked up to be, consider this: Saban could win his third BCS title in four years tonight, but he’s still never won SEC titles in consecutive seasons. Roll that around in your mouth for a while. A victory by Bama tonight would mean winning back-to-back national championships is easier than winning back-to-back SEC championships.
And now, our preview and pick for tonight’s game…
#1 Notre Dame (12-0) vs #2 Alabama (12-1) at Miami
8:30pm ET on ESPN
Opening Line: UA -9.5
Current Line: UA -9.5
Keys for Alabama: To thine own self be true. The Crimson Tide — as we showed you here and here — is clearly the better team on paper. Bama simply needs to be itself tonight in Miami. Run the football. Get smart decision-making and an efficient performance from QB AJ McCarron. Squelch the opponents’ passing game and make that foe one-dimensional. If Alabama plays as it normally plays, Saban’s squad should bring home another trophy.
Keys for Notre Dame: Follow our four-step plan. As we showed you earlier today, the three teams that gave Alabama trouble this season a) all had efficient nights from their quarterbacks, b) all managed to make McCarron less efficient, c) all rushed for 100 yards, and d) all won the turnover battle. Irish QB Everett Golson is a long shot to have an uber-efficient night against Bama’s secondary (which is ranked #2 in the nation in yards allowed per game). It’s also difficult to imagine Notre Dame reaching its average of 200 yards rushing against Kirby Smart’s defense. If they can’t go for at least 150, it’s hard to picture Brian Kelly’s team having much of a chance. Which brings us to the great equalizer in college football — turnovers. If Notre Dame wins the turnover battle tonight, the other three steps in our plan become less important. And all it takes is an early turnover to change the entire outlook of a game (ask Florida about its Sugar Bowl experience).
One Extra Advantage: Alabama has the better special teams units. Bama is ranked #43 in the nation in punt return average (10.1 yards per return). Notre Dame is ranked #120 (2.4 yards per return). Alabama is ranked #13 in kick return average (24.8 yards per return). The Irish are ranked #84 (20.0 yards per return). Alabama is #17 in punting average (43.8 yards per punt). Notre Dame is #69 (40.5 yards per punt). Add it up and that’s a lot of hidden yardage that figures to go to the Tide.
Pick: Alabama 24, Notre Dame 17. Here’s guessing the two teams trade blows in the first quarter, followed by second and third quarters dominated by Alabama. Tack on a Notre Dame score in the fourth quarter to make things look more competitive.