Alabama vs. Notre Dame: Will It Even Be Close?


The highest rated college football game to date was the January 2, 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Miami and Penn State. Tonight’s BCS championship game between No. 1-ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama should blow the Nielsens for that one away.
These are, after all, the two most successful college football programs of the last 100 years, or at least since 1920, which is how far back the College Football Data Warehouse goes in evaluating teams.

To read the New York sports media on this game you’d think it was Notre Dame vs. Opponent. (And shrewd move by Alabama coach Nick Saban in showing his team a film about Mariano Rivera to get them to understand focus . Saban probably won more than a few fans in the tri-state area with that move.) It is exactly the other way around. It’s Alabama who is the defending national champion. For that matter, it is Alabama who has won two national titles in the previous three seasons, and though they have not yet challenged Notre Dame as a national brand, they’re getting there through national exposure and the number of players drafted into the NFL. (When the owner of David Letterman’s favorite deli wears an Alabama shirt, you know the Tide is rising.)

Considering how storied their histories are it’s amazing that these two teams have played only six times, not once before 1973. Notre Dame has won five of those, the first four by a total of 13 points. But as Rabbi Hillel reminded us, that was then, this is now.

Irish-centric sportswriters have talked themselves blue and gold trying to make a case that the Crimson Tide shouldn’t be 9 ½ to 10 point favorites, but they are wrong. They have also made themselves dizzy trying to rationalize Notre Dame’s supposed superiority on defense. In fact, the two teams played just about the same level of opposition with Alabama allowing the fewest yards per game, 246 – the best in the nation to Notre Dame’s 286.8 – number six. In scoring defense, or points allowed, Notre Dame is first in the country at 10.3 per game, and Alabama is second at 10.7. I call that a jump ball.

It has been argued by many, including Skip Bayless on ESPN this morning, that Alabama’s defense is “vulnerable” because they gave up 29 points to Texas A&M and 21 more to Georgia (the Bulldogs also scored a TD on a blocked field goal). But that’s what should catch the keen observer’s eye: Alabama played against two of the best passers in college football and was still number one in fewest yards allowed.

Notre Dame aficionados have been saying things like, “Well, Johnny Manziel is small and quick and a great improviser, and look what he did to Alabama. Our quarterback, Everett Golson, is small and quick and can improvise.” This is a perfect example of false equivalency; Golson is not Johnny Football, he is not even close. He is a good passer and runner who started 10 of 12 games for the Irish this past season, completing just 58.9% of his passes, averaging a good but not great 7.57 yards/throw with 11 TDs and 5 interceptions.

In Georgia’s Aaron Murray, ranked No, 1 in ESPN’s quarterback rating, and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray, ranked 29th, the Crimson Tide defense has already contained two QBs who are better than Golson, number 64.

On the other hand, the Notre Dame defense hasn’t seen anyone nearly so good as Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, ranked number two, slightly behind Murray. McCarron averaged an eye-popping 9.6 yds/throw with 26 TDs and just 3 ints.

Analysts have argued that McCarron is not really that good, that it’s really the overall Alabama passing game with its great offensive front five, speedy receivers, and awesome run support that makes McCarron look good. This a moot point, since McCarron will have all his weapons on hand tonight.

The basic reason for that 10-point spread is the Alabama offense, which averaged 38.5 points/game. The Tide’s pinpoint passing meshes with two outstanding runners, Eddie Lacy (6.4 yds/carry) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (6.5). Together they scored 27 TDs this year. Notre Dame, in contrast, average 26.8 pts/game. The Irish have excellent running backs in Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, but they’re not in the class of Lacy and Yeldon.

Put simply, the Notre Dame defense matches up well with the Notre Dame offense, but the Alabama offense–with its power, speed and depth–is more than a match for the Irish D. A.J. McCarron has already beaten better defenses than Notre Dame’s, including LSU in last year’s BCS title game, a 21-0 Tide victory. Right now Alabama is on an historic roll that Notre Dame in its best seasons–in fact, even Alabama in its best seasons under Bear Bryant–has never equaled. Since 2009, they’ve won 48 of 53 games, including victories in five postseason games against opponents who, otherwise, had a won-lost record of 62-2, beating them by a collective margin of 171 to 69.

One more thing: the thing I love most about college football in comparison to the pro game is its sense of tradition and rivalry. There are Notre Dame fans who are a little sore because in the 1973 Sugar bowl the Irish best the Tide 24-23 but only won half the national championship when the UPI coaches poll decided to vote before the bowl games, giving Alabama the prize. (The AP sportswriters waited till after the bowls and voted their championship to Notre Dame.)

There are many Alabama fans who remember 1966, when the defending national champion Tide finished 11-0 after the bowl games but were third in both polls — behind Notre Dame and Michigan State, both 9-0-1 and who didn’t play in the postseason.) What galled Bama fans the most was that the Fighting Irish seemed more like the tie-ing Irish ran out the clock and settled for a 10-10 tie against Michigan State, knowing that they had superior polling power.

Think about that. Not only was this generation of Alabama players not yet born when that game was played, most of their parents weren’t even born. Who still argues about what the Giants and Cowboys did 46 years ago?