Finally all the hype, suspense, and anticipation can end as the national championship game is upon us. #1 Notre Dame battles #2 Alabama for the championship and the title of best team in the country. For Alabama it's a chance to claim a dynasty and maintain their spot upon the mountaintop. For Notre Dame, it's the perfect capper to a dream season and a welcome back into the national elite. The Tide may be a big favorite, but this game has the feel of a tight affair.
NOTRE DAME PREVIEW
The Fighting Irish enter the game 12-0 and ranked #1. It's the first undefeated regular season since their last championship season in 1988 and they have a chance to become the first ever ND team to win 13 games in a season. To do so, they'll have to solve a very tough Crimson Tide team that has proven they know how to win the big games.
Offensively for the Irish it all starts with quarterback Everett Golson. Golson has steadily improved over the course of the season and was playing great football by the end. He's thrown 11 touchdowns and five picks this year, but only two of those picks have come in the second half of this season. He's also rushed for 305 yards and five touchdowns making him dangerous on the ground as well as the air. He'll have to be at his best against the tremendous Alabama defense.
To help Golson out will be his two big running backs, Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Both guys have had their moments this season. Wood is still the best running back on the roster and when he's on, there's no one better. He's rushed for 740 yards and four touchdowns this year after missing the first two games. Riddick, however, has played the best this year and down the stretch was nearly unstoppable. He leads the team with 880 yards and five touchdowns. What makes Riddick so dangerous, though, is his ability to catch the ball. He's made 35 catches for 364 yards and a score this season with several huge receptions. A good game from Riddick gives the Irish a much better shot of winning.
Besides Riddick, Notre Dame will count on several other guys to catch the ball. The Irish don't have one go-to-guy like they did with Michael Floyd, but are banking on Robby Toma, TJ Jones, John Goodman and a returning DaVaris Daniels who is back after missing the last couple games because of an injury. One player where the Irish have the clear advantage, of course, is with tight end Tyler Eifert who can cause headaches for the Crimson Tide defense. Eifert leads the team with 44 catches for 624 yards and four touchdowns. He could be Golson's best friend in this game.
Obviously Notre Dame has won games this year because of their defense. It's the best defense in the country and are holding opponents to just 10.3 points a game. They've held teams to 6 points or less five times this season, 6 if you count Stanford whose only touchdown came on defense. The defensive line may be the best in college football, the secondary has played well above their expectations, and then there's Manti Te'o who was the best defensive player the entire season. They'll have their hands full, but should be up to the test.
The Crimson Tide roll in at 12-1, ranked #2 and champions of the SEC. They've got to feel great being here after their loss to Texas A&M seemingly knocked them out of title contention. But they won't be satisfied just being in the game. They want to win again and capture their third national championship in the last four years and their second in a row.
Leading the way is veteran signal-caller A.J. McCarron. The junior has done nothing but win since taking over as the starter last year. He led the Tide to the title in 2011 and now has his sights set on another. So far he's been terrific this year throwing for 2,669 with 26 touchdowns to only three interceptions. Two of his three picks have been in the redzone which is about his only flaw this year. The Irish shouldn't expect too many mistakes from McCarron and can only hope to limit his success.
Certainly helping McCarron this year has been the outstanding running game the Tide has. Both Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon have rushed for 1000 yards and have combined to score 27 touchdowns. Alabama wins because they beat you up running the football. No team has been better against the run that Notre Dame, but they've haven't faced an attack as great as this one. It will be strength against strength.
When the Tide do throw the football, it will most likely go to freshman Amari Cooper who has outpaced everyone else on the roster by a mile. Cooper lead the team with 53 catches for 895 yards and nine touchdowns. No one else on the roster comes close to those numbers. Juniors Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood could get some looks as well, however, Bell is coming back from a broken leg and may be limited.
Like Notre Dame, Alabama has rode their defense to the championship. They're the second best defense in the country and have held opponents to only 10.7 points a contest. They've shut out four different opponents and held two others to just seven. They did give up 29 to Texas A&M in their loss and 28 to Georgia in the SEC championship game, so they can be exploited, but the Irish are going to have to play lights out for that. Leading the charge of defense is junior lineback C.J. Mosley who leads the team with 99 tackles. He's also recorded four sacks, two interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Adrian Hubbard is a monster too with 10 tackles-for-loss, six sacks, and three forced fumbles. Then there's defensive lineman Jesse Williams and corner Dee Milliner who might just be the best corner in the country.
It's a little funny. Notre Dame, perrenially the most hated team, actually becoming the fan favorite simply because people are tired of the SEC and Alabama in particular winning every year. That doesn't mean people like rooting for the Irish, just picking the lesser of two evils I suppose. Still, it's unlike anything I experienced before, kind of like this season as a whole. No one expected Notre Dame to be in this game at the beginning of the year. I thought they'd go 9-3 and couldn't have dreamed they'd be 60 minutes away from being called champions. But just being here doesn't make a season. They've got to win it. Alabama is the best team they will have played, and probably the best team they've played since the USC heyday in the middle of the last decade. The Irish may be #1 and undefeated, but are still heavy underdogs. ND can use that to their advantage. This won't be easy and the Irish are going to have to play their best game of the season. Let's not forget last year when Alabama had six weeks to prepare for the title game against LSU and then didn't let the Tigers cross midfield until the second half. The Tide will be ready to play. But let's also not forget that Alabama hasn't played this great of a defense even in the vaunted SEC. Points will be at a premium. If the Irish can keep it close, they have the advantage. I think this will be a close game and should come right down to the wire. I may be going with my heart, but I like Notre Dame's chances.
FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame - 20, Alabama - 17