Mitchell: Who wins the 2013 title, and why
CFN's Russ Mitchell examines the strengths and weaknesses of both Notre Dame and Alabama, as well as the likely outcome...and why
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
MIAMI, Florida -- Under what will likely be a balmy, humid January evening in paradise, the last teams standing will play out the 2012 college football season. The Fighting Irish, in a return to glory, and saddled with the historically unusual title of underdog, will face the Notre Dame of now, the Alabama Crimson Tide, trying for its third BCS title in just four years.
If the Irish hope to derail the budding Capstone dynasty, it will begin and end with the play of its uber-talented defensive front seven. Meanwhile, Alabama must establish the run and win the turnover battle, two facets it has remarkably struggled with this year against tougher competition.
So, who will win...and why?
WHY NOTRE DAME WINS
In games of this magnitude, where both teams have risen to a season’s best, it is more important to examine how their performance against tougher foes rather than get sidetracked in the complete body of work. What Alabama did against Auburn and Notre Dame against Wake Forest is virtually meaningless.
The Crimson Tide played three top shelf opponents in 2012: LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. In those three contests, Alabama proved itself to be a step short of its recent excellence...indeed, in some areas even vulnerable.
First, many Bama supporters point to the Tide being ranked 13 nationally in turnover margin. This fact is indisputable...as is that in the three tough games listed above, Alabama has but a single takeaway to seven turnovers. Against its best opponents, Stanford and Oklahoma, the Irish are 3-3.
Alabama cannot survive a 1:7 turnover ratio Monday against Notre Dame; not against this Irish run defense.
Second, the Tide is ranked as the nation’s best run defense and total defense. However, against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, that defense surrendered 1,247 yards, and allowed freshman runners to gut them in all three games.
74 points in three game, while allowing 100+ rushing nights for LSU’s Jeremy Hill, UGA’s Todd Gurley and TAMU’s Johnny Manziel (after factoring for sacks). All talented freshmen to say the least...but freshmen are not supposed to do that to Alabama’s defense, let alone three out of three.
Third, I would feel more comfortable if Alabama had a bona fide pass rusher...but they don’t. Or if its secondary actually played up to its overhyped headlines...which it doesn’t. In the aforementioned games, Alabama DBs were shredded for nearly 12 complete quarters, for a combined stat line of 66-for-99 (66%) for 816 yards, with four touchdowns to a single interception. The passing efficiency ratios for those quarterbacks: Zach Mettenberger 150, Manziel 167 and Aaron Murray 126.
This is not your big brother’s Alabama defense.
Fourth, since Saban arrived in the Capstone, Alabama has been a "time of possession" team. That’s how it wins - grinding its opponents into the grass. Alabama controlled the ball handily against UGA, but LSU had twice the TOP Bama did, and TAMU, whose head coach said after their impressive Cotton Bowl victory that TOP is immaterial to their offense, even TAMU controlled the ball for five minutes longer than Bama.
Notre Dame controlled TOP against both Stanford and Oklahoma.
Then there’s rushing... Alabama controls the game clock by executing a punishing rushing attack. However, Bama couldn’t establish the run against LSU and should really have lost, settled for roughly half its season rushing average against TAMU and did lose, and had a whopping 350 net yards against a Georgia run defense ranked 10 in the SEC, and still barely won.
At some point Alabama must establish the run to beat Notre Dame. Say what you will about the Notre Dame (and we do below), but it has one of the best defensive front sevens in college football. It held Stanford (in regulation) to just 68% of its season rushing average, and Oklahoma to a stunning nine percent of theirs...on 24 carries.
To make matters worse, questions continue to swirl around just how healthy Alabama’s all-everything center Barrett Jones is. We’ve learned our lesson about Bama health rumors, Jones has stated he’s ready to go, and we saw him bowl over UGA’s defensive line after his injury in the SEC Championship. Of course, that was a highly suspect UGA run defense; it’ll be a different story on Monday.
This line has also allowed quarterback AJ McCarron to be sacked almost twice as many time this year (22) than last (13), and you guessed it, Notre Dame is ranked 15 in the nation in sacks.
Finally, first time coaches are 7-1 in BCS Title games. So much for experience.
WHY ALABAMA WINS
First and foremost, because they’re Alabama. Because losing is now foreign to them; they expect to win, and not in a dismissive way as to their opponent’s worth.
In a sport played by young amateurs, experience and confidence are key factors in big and small games alike. Far more so than the NFL, and even there its valuable.
Then there’s schedule. Much has been made of the fact that Notre Dame has played nine teams in 2012 that went bowling. But look a little closer... Navy lost. Purdue lost. Michigan, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and USC all lost. And they didn’t just lose: with the exception of Michigan, the aforementioned teams were largely humiliated.
Not exactly the best tune up for playing the Tide.
Third, this is the best defense that Irish quarterback Everett Golson will have ever seen. Part of the reason I picked LSU to win last year in Tuscaloosa was the Tigers had two senior quarterbacks with tremendous experience - who had already played against Alabama on the road. Conversely, at that point in his career, McCarron had never seen a defense the caliber of LSU’s (and practice doesn’t count - unless your own defense is trying to hurt you).
Stanford’s defense is good - in fact, it actually knocked Golson out of that game and the next. But even with its 2012 weaknesses, Alabama’s defense is better. With six weeks to prepare, Nick Saban will have a bevy of fresh new sets designed to trouble the young Irish quarterback. He will be frazzled, and he likely has to play a perfect game for Notre Dame to have a chance of winning.
Fourth, The Irish might have a good run defense, but its secondary is susceptible. Remember, evaluate performance versus equal competition. Notre Dame benefited by playing only one legitimate top shelf quarterback all season - OU’s Landry Jones - who torched the Irish for 35-of-51 passing for 356 yards and a passing efficiency rating of 123. Not only does Alabama McCarron have material overall and big game experience, but he’s thrown for 26 touchdowns this season, sports a passing efficiency rating of 173 and is very stable. McCarron is arguably the best quarterback Notre Dame will face in 2012.
Moreover, Alabama traditionally does a good job corralling running quarterbacks. Yes, Johnny Manziel. But with all do respect to Alabama’s coaching staff, Golson isn’t close to the Heisman winner, as either a passer or runner.
No disrespect to Golson, who is certainly good enough to lead his team to victory on Monday. But he’s a poor man’s Johnny Football. Meanwhile, Bama crushed Michigan’s Denard Robinson, along with other running quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor, Tim Tebow...even Auburn’s Cam Newton, who rushed for only 39 yards on 22 carries in the 2010 Iron Bowl.
Fifth, there’s The Lumber Down Under. Bama’s big nose tackle Jesse Williams appears to be 100 percent after limping through a good portion of the second half of 2012. His backup Brandon Ivory might not have reached full health, but the time off has certainly helped. Their condition will improve Bama’s run defense, not unlike how the time off benefited LSU’s Glenn Dorsey before the 2007 title game against Ohio State.
Finally, the weather. It’s expected to be ~78 degrees and 90 percent humidity at kickoff Monday. Watching the Irish this weekend, they seemed to take numerous opportunities to duck under shade, and were far from comfortable with the heat. Meanwhile, it’s just another day at the beach for the Tide. If you’ve never played football in 90 percent humidity, it’s a challenge.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
Let’s hope Notre Dame backup quarterback Tommy Rees is ready.
Both teams are equally matched in terms of strength and style, except that Notre Dame has a more mobile quarterback. However, in its last two title games, Alabama has knocked one quarterback out (Texas’ Colt McCoy) and the other into submission (LSU’s Jordan Jefferson). It’s entirely possible we’ll see more of the same on Monday.
Much like it did in last year’s title game and in the 2009 SEC Championship, don’t be surprised if Alabama comes out throwing early, both to exploit Notre Dame’s secondary and to put the front seven back on its heels. In the first quarter versus LSU in New Orleans, Bama threw 11 times to only five runs.
If Bama is successful in this regard, they will be able to keep Notre Dame guessing. This will give Alabama’s defense an advantage, very similar to last year. Golson will have to be near perfect against what for him will be the greatest challenge of his young career...experience has taught us this usually does not work in youth’s favor.
The SEC has had seven teams play for the last six BCS titles...and won them all. That in and of itself carries gravity. Alabama has played the harder schedule, its players and coaches are more experienced, and its quarterback will have the steadier performance. This will be the difference.
FINAL: Alabama 21, Notre Dame 17
Russ Mitchell is the lead SEC Columnist for CFN. Follow him @russmitchellcfb