Zemek's Final Thoughts: All about the lines

Posted Jan 7, 2013

Matt Zemek's Final Thoughts before the 2013 BCS championship

Fiutak: Great matchup, okay teams
Cirminiello: Golson, Golson, Golson
Zemek: Trenches, trenches, trenches
Harrison: Is there really an SEC dominance?
Johnson: It’s 2002 Ohio State
Doan: Matchup nightmare for Alabama

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

1) From a tactical standpoint, the centerpiece of the 2013 BCS National Championship Game will be the way in which Brian Kelly chooses to attack Nick Saban's defense. Notre Dame has been sitting around for more than six weeks; naturally, this could leave the Fighting Irish rusty, but the long break has certainly given Kelly time to think about his game plan. It's very much worth realizing that Notre Dame's most impressive offensive performance of the season came against Oklahoma. Since his team was a double-digit underdog in that contest, Kelly souped up his game plan against the Sooners, taking shots down the field and creating a mixture of plays that brought out the best in the Notre Dame offense. The Irish were crisp that night in Norman, Okla. They played with pace and conviction, performing well above the level they established for most of the season. Kelly, an offense-first coach, has shrewdly recruited and game-planned with an emphasis on defense this season. Against Alabama, he'll need some high-impact plays and one more "above-the-pay-grade" effort from his offense. Look for the ways in which Notre Dame attempts to differentiate its offense and show Saban (and Kirby Smart) some new looks.

2) The battles in the trenches, especially between Alabama's offensive line and Notre Dame's front seven, will rightly grab a lot of attention in this contest. So, too, will the confrontation between Everett Golson and Alabama's safeties. However, if you were to pick one game key and say, "Success in this aspect of competition will set up the rest of the game for Alabama," you would be quite justified in pointing to A.J. McCarron as the central figure in this larger drama. It was McCarron, after all, who played so poorly against LSU on Nov. 5, 2011, only to rebound magnificently in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, paving the way for Alabama to move the ball on a consistent basis. McCarron wobbled in the final month of the season. He was average and turnover-prone against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. If McCarron struggles, Alabama's rushing attack isn't likely to flourish against Notre Dame. However, if the big-stage quarterback once again uses the BCS title game as a corrective occasion, eliminating mistakes from his bloodstream, Alabama can put Notre Dame's defense on a pendulum and dictate the terms on which this game is played.

3) Brass tacks: Will the long layoff help one team more than the other? As this game unfolds, we could very well witness a scenario in which the layoff will benefit one team. However, the pre-kickoff sense is that both teams will be aided in relatively equal measure. As mentioned above, the extended break should help Brian Kelly formulate a quality game plan. However, Alabama was beaten up at many positions; as was the case with Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, the long break could make the Crimson Tide whole. The layoff factor really should be a wash.

4) The SEC's performance in the bowl season, especially Florida's loss to Louisville, should not be seen as some sort of indication that Notre Dame might win. Teams represent conferences, but teams are their own entities. Nick Saban and Cam Newton and Nick Fairley; Trent Richardson, Marcell Dareus and Glenn Dorsey; Matt Flynn, Urban Meyer and Ahmad Black – these men win BCS titles. Conferences claim those titles, but they don't win them on the field. Alabama is a proven team with championship chops, and that's what will lift the Tide if they are indeed able to fight off the Irish. The other thing that has to be noted here is that Florida's loss could actually point the way to a Notre Dame loss, not an evening of Alabama agony. Florida and Notre Dame both lived on the edge all season long but managed to go 23-1 through the final Saturday of November. The odds caught up with Florida in the Sugar Bowl, and they could turn against Notre Dame in Miami. Maybe the SEC isn't as strong as it was last year, but then again, maybe the laws of averages will catch up with Notre Dame. Ultimately, don't read too much into the Sugar Bowl, one way or another.

5) Remember this about college football's national title game: It's often the case that a "Mark Bradley moment" jumps up and changes the equation, emotionally and on the scoreboard. Mark Bradley, if you don't remember, was the Oklahoma punt returner whose fumble near his own goal line gave USC seven easy points and a tidal wave of momentum in the 2005 Orange Bowl. Oklahoma was never the same team after that mistake. Reggie Bush's lateral in the 2006 Rose Bowl was a Mark Bradley moment. Ohio State receiver Brian Robiskie's drop of a touchdown pass in the 2008 BCS National Championship Game was a Mark Bradley moment. On a few occasions – think of the 2000 Sugar Bowl between Florida State and Virginia Tech, or the 2012 BCS title game between Alabama and LSU – one team carries the play so consistently that the losing team's inadequacies fade into the background. However, in most of these national title tilts, a mistake often sets or resets the psychology of the battle while giving one team some more tangible benefits (points, yards and leverage) as well. So much ink is spilled on this game and so many keys are discussed, but everything you think you know about a game can (and does) go out the window when a Mark Bradley moment enters the picture.

6) The 1973 Sugar Bowl – Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23, on December 31, 1973 – is easily one of the 25 greatest bowl games and one of the 50 greatest games in college football's 144-year history. If this game is anywhere close to that Ara Parseghian-Bear Bryant classic at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, we will all be privileged to watch the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide make some more history in South Florida.