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A Daunting Task: Notre Dame vs. Alabama Preview

In a year full of crazy events, Friday’s matchup of Notre Dame and Alabama is sure to fit that bill.  For the first time since 1942, the Rose Bowl will not be played in Pasadena, California, but will instead take place in Dallas, Texas.  The fourth ranked Fighting Irish are set to take on the top ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama for the first time since the 2012-13 BCS National Championship.  Friday’s matchup, according to all of the “experts”, seems to be unfavorable for the Irish, but that’s why the game is played – nothing is impossible.  Was Notre Dame’s most recent showing against Clemson favorable?  Absolutely not.  But is that a reason to be down on this year’s version of the Irish?  Not at all.  Alabama’s offense is full of playmakers and Heisman Trophy finalists but, in my opinion, the Crimson Tide’s defense is nothing crazier than what the Irish have previously gone up against.  It will come down to Notre Dame’s ability to stop Alabama’s high-powered offense that will ultimately give the Irish a chance to shock the world.

The Crimson Tide are led by quarterback Mac Jones who is surrounded by multiple first round NFL draft picks in numerous positions.  The AP player of the year, Alabama’s wide receiver, DeVonta Smith, is an unbelievable talent.  In the Crimson Tide backfield is Najee Harris, another completely daunting task to go against.  Alabama’s offense is full of top-tier talent from top to bottom.  So what can Clark Lea and the Notre Dame defense do to stop them?  In my opinion, it comes down to two key factors: playing zone coverage on the Crimson Tide wide receivers and forcing the pocket to collapse on Mac Jones.  If the Irish are able to get relatively consistent pressure on Jones and force him in to errant throws, a turnover forced by the Irish defense could be a huge momentum swing.  Alabama’s offense is averaging nearly 50 points per game and have only scored below 40 points one time this season – that coming in their season opener.  So, needless to say, stoping them is going to be a tall task.  Alabama has not been forced to put the ball more than twice in a game all season.  Notre Dame needs to play a similar defensive scheme as to what they showed in the first outing against Clemson.  Contain the pocket and pressure the quarterback.  I personally don’t trust the Irish cornerbacks against Alabama’s wide receivers, which is why I think zone coverage would be more beneficial for the Notre Dame defense.  It’s not an impossible task, but the Irish defenders will undoubtedly have to bring their A-game.  It is also important to note that similar to the Irish, Alabama is also going to be missing their starting center who went out with an injury in the final quarter of the SEC Championship Game.  Notre Dame will need to focus on exploiting this potential weakness in the Crimson Tide’s offensive line to get pressure on Jones and to contain Harris and the run game.  Even with that being said, Alabama has not had to punt more than twice in a game throughout this entire season, so Notre Dame will really need to keep the Tide’s offense in check if they want this to be a competitive matchup.

When it comes to Notre Dame possessing the ball, it is going to come down to establishing the running game and stringing together long, sustainable drives.  As the saying goes, sometimes “the best offense is a good defense”.  If Notre Dame is able to string together a few longer drives, getting Kyren Williams and the ground game going, they will be able to chew up significant time on the clock, keeping the high-powered Crimson Tide offense off the field.  When Notre Dame’s ground game opens up, it allows for Ian Book and the offense to be multi-dimensional, getting the Irish wide receivers more involved in the game.  Notre Dame’s biggest struggles have come when one facet of the offense has been shut down and they have been forced to rely on a single aspect for success.  The running and passing games need to be working in tandem if the Irish want to keep up with the Tide.  If I were Tommy Rees, coordinating Notre Dame’s offense, I would call multiple play-action passes that allow Book to get out of the pocket and stretch the Alabama defense horizontally.  This will not only create the potential for confusion with the Crimson Tide defenders, but also give the ability for Book to use his legs in the running game when necessary and get out of a potential collapsing pocket.  In the most recent matchup against Clemson, the Tigers seemed to be getting a lot of pressure up the middle, so if Book can escape from that earlier, I think he will have more success.  On the offensive side of the ball, I am not very intimidated by Alabama’s defense and hope that a combination of play-action calls, an established running game, and some crossing routes favoring Notre Dame’s tight ends against Alabama’s linebackers, will be the recipe for success.  

With the Irish coming in as nearly three touchdown underdogs, this is the largest spread in College Football Playoff history.  Alabama has had no problems scoring the ball this year, putting up 40 or more points in every single game other than the season opener.  That doesn’t come as much of a shock with the amount of talent they have on that side of the ball, however I would put up the argument that Notre Dame’s defense might be the best defense they have faced this year.  I think this game will have shades of the first matchup against Clemson this year, if Tommy Rees’s play calling is advantageous and allows Ian Book time and space to run, I think the Irish have the ability to put up a decent amount of points.  As I have done all year, I am not going to pick against the Irish in my final score prediction; we have made it this far!  I am going to go with a 34-31 Notre Dame victory.  At the end of the day, the Irish are one of four teams left playing meaningful college football – nothing to be ashamed of.  Go Irish.  Beat Crimson Tide.