#1 Notre Dame (12-0) v. #2 Alabama (12-1)
The BCS National Championship Game
Sun Life Stadium - Miami, FL - 8:00 PM EST on ESPN
This is really going to happen. Irish fans have wallowed in and out of sincere doubt for years over whether this opportunity for a championship would ever come again. The university's balance between academics and elite football in the modern era seemed to be boxing Notre Dame out of the game's upper echelon more and more with each passing fall. The narrative of how ND emerged in 2012 from the Davie-Willingham-Weis eras of false hope mixed with futility to the precipice of the sport has been well documented over the past 45 days so I won't pile on. The reality of the moment doesn't dilute, for the most loyal of Fighting Irish fans, the surreal aspect of finally watching their team playing for the National Championship again on Monday night. We wanted to believe this resurgence was possible in spite of realities on and off the field that said it might never be. All I can say is - I hope you enjoyed the ride to this point. Oddly, it feels so good ... because it has been so long.
First Things - If you're an Irish fan, be prepared to hate me forever as I now hate myself. This is a game preview, but a little story sure to enrage. Late Thursday I was offered a media credential by a group who, at the last minute, wasn't going to be able to send any representatives. Access to ALL the media events, a parking pass, a field pass before & after the game & a FREE FREE FREE spot in the press box for the game I've been dreaming of witnessing my entire life. I scoured all manners of travel from Boise to Florida but found no route cheaper than $1300 and that was before a hotel was investigated. With an unexpected $2,000 vet bill days before Christmas and plans of purchasing a home in 2013 I made the decision that splurging on the airfare wasn't in my family's best interest ... WRONG WRONG WRONG FAIL FAIL FAIL.
I've taken more personal and professional "risks" of anyone I know. Moved across the country twice to sites unseen and quit decent jobs with only the hope of the "next big thing" where I landed next. It's always worked itself out and shelling out the airfare, even if I had to sleep on a bench outside the stadium, is what I've should have done because this experience, which I'm sadly re-living through Twitter, will only be duplicated if the Irish fail to reach these heights for another 20+ seasons. My place in the NDFB world is at a place exclusive to the 2012 season and who knows where I'll stand in 12 months or 12 years. I won't say it's the worst mistake I've ever made, because I drink alcohol, but I chose poorly.
If there is a silver lining it is this - a member of our awesome team @TNNDN secured the credential and will enjoy the spoils it affords. This person was a better fit as they already had the plane ticket but no game ticket and is another life-long fan. I was lucky enough to be at the Michigan game and the famous Te'o pep rally that preceded it so I can't complain too much. I'll do my thing on the Man Cave couch and scream my face off unlike I'd be allowed to do in the Press Box. Onto the preview.
Five Things To Watch
5. Notre Dame's Red Zone Defense - Eight allowed Red Zone TD's by the Fighting Irish defense in 2012 is so damn impressive. Alabama, who scored over 30 points in 11 of 13 games, is going to move the ball on multiple drives the same way many other Irish opponents did. With their backs against the goal-line is where Notre Dame has won games all season and where they will win again against Alabama. Tide QB A.J. McCarron isn't a threat to run, but this is the best offensive line the Irish face so the defensive backs will need to be on the same page for every snap because pressure isn't going to be easy to come by. When the Irish win this game, their Red Zone stats should be chiseled into massive bricks and mounted in the Notre Dame Stadium end zone. Seriously.
4. Jesse Williams v. Mike Golic Jr - Alabama's defensive tackle is a 330 lb Australian steakhouse who can bench press 600 lbs and subs in at fullback for the Tide's goal-line offense. Mike Golic Jr has far exceeded preseason expectations, like his entire team, but is still a player Nick Saban can look to attack early and often. Saban, with overloaded lines and special blitz packages, will get Golic matched up with Williams one-on-one as early and often. Golic's ability to hold his own, especially on pass sets, is key to the diversity of the Irish offense.
3. Tyler Eifert - While actual practices were limited during the long 45 day break, film study and game-planning has never been more focused for Brian Kelly. It would seem to make sense that getting Everett Golson to recognize single coverage on Tyler Eifert was near the top of the agenda over these sessions. Alabama can put their stellar corner, Dee Milliner, on Eifert but at 6'1'', 200 lbs he gives up 6 inches and 50 lbs to America's best tight end. If he's not receiving any help, that's a match-up Golson should favor at every opportunity. Nothing could be more ideal for the Brian Kelly than to send Nick Saban into halftime redesigning the defense to stop #80.
2. Barrett Jones v. Louis Nix III - Jones's recovery from an injured foot against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game has been the biggest personnel storyline of the game. Ty Hildenbrandt of The Solid Verbal Podcast went as far as to tell me that Jones was the best player on the field in last year's National Title Game. Jones missed nearly every Alabama practice in December and presumably hasn't been able to maintain the kind of conditioning we'd like to think he'll need for the slugfest against the Irish. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III can be unblockable for extended stretches. If Jones's ailment leads to the Tide needing to double team Nix, then Stephon Tuitt, Manti Te'o and the rest of the front seven may find more creases to wreak havoc than any previous Bama opponent. Even if Barrett Jones is healthy, I expect Bama's guards to stay in often because Irish Chocolate is that good and that funny (pictured below with Obie).
1. Confident Golson or Cocky Golson? - Notre Dame's sophomore quarterback doesn't need to be sensational to win this game but he needs to be good enough not to lose it. That starts here: Golson can not turn the ball over. He only has 2 interceptions in his past five starts which includes nearly 150 pass attempts. One interception was a terrible pass on a terrible read (Pittsburgh in the end zone) and the other was on a cocky deep bomb in a blowout against Wake Forest. Nick Saban will try to use that cockiness against him and mix up his coverages throughout in hopes of catching Golson misreading defenses. More important for Golson will be protecting the football when moving in the pocket and when running into the defense. Tide defenders must be drooling as they watch Golson whip through slower defenses without so much as a tuck of the football into his jersey. The Crimson Tide defense will close on him faster than any unit he's ever seen. If he's listened to Brian Kelly, we might see Golson in a few QB slides that will allow him to fight another play. Golson has all the tools and ability to beat Alabama for enough big plays to win this game. And he will.
Predicting The Game & What We'll See
Notre Dame is going to win this game. It's too easy to say that it will be "really close" as well. It's not absurd to make this statement so I will:
Notre Dame has a better chance of coming from behind than Alabama.
I don't even think that statement matters because I believe the Irish are leading at the half and win by two scores. Both offenses will be rusty to kick off the game but ND will get a field goal early and Tyler Eifert will finish a legendary first half with a leap ball touchdown that gives the Irish a 10-3 lead. The Irish will score early in the second half on a short Everett Golson scramble which caps off an extended drive. Alabama will respond quickly with a score of their own before Kyle Brindza's late 3rd quarter field goal makes it 20-10 heading to the fourth quarter. Midway through the 4th quarter the Irish will force a turnover deep in Alabama territory and on the first play Golson will toss his second touchdown pass to Troy Niklas to give the nation's best defense a seemingly insurmountable 27-10 lead with half a quarter to play. McCarron will get the football for two more drives and get the Tide one more touchdown. The game ends with Everett Golson embracing Theo Riddick after a Victory Formation kneel down as the confetti flies and 25 years of Notre Dame angst evaporates into the humid Miami air.
It's going to be beautiful.
Notre Dame (+9.5)
Herring Bone Says Take Notre Dame & The Over
Final Score: Notre Dame 27-17