Monday, December 10, 2012

BCS Championship: Matchup Analysis

After the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in an SEC Championship game for the ages on December 1, what many assumed prior to that game became a reality: Alabama will play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the National Title on January 7.  A matchup between two of College Football's most decorated and storied programs, the game will be endlessly hyped and will be a cash cow - the least expensive seat in the house right now is listed at just over $1700.  On paper, it shapes up as a classic.
Alabama's participation will mark the seventh consecutive year that an SEC team has played for the crystal football, and their presence in the game is because of their adherence to Saban and the SEC's style - bruising, smashmouth, football in the trenches that relies upon controlling the line of scrimmage.  Brian Kelly's team are the same way.  That's why, though some expect Alabama to roll right through Notre Dame, this game should be a compelling matchup.  Take a look at the breakdown beyond the break.
Offense: Led by their tandem of running backs, the shifty TJ Yeldon and the bruising Eddie Lacy, Alabama has scored 35 touchdowns on the ground this year and rushed for 350 yards and three scores in the SEC Championship against an excellent Bulldogs defense.  This is made possible by their almost NFL-caliber offensive line, which includes three All-Americans and Barrett Jones, who won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the FBS last year.  Make no mistake, Alabama will run the ball relentlessly, setting up their play-action packages and utilizing freshman wideout Amari Cooper - and not using junior QB AJ McCarron a lot unless they absolutely need to.  Notre Dame plays a very similar style of football, only averaging 22 fewer yards per game on the ground than Alabama and maintaining a slight advantage, about four yards, in average passing yards per game.  Like the Tide, the Irish will attempt to set the tone with a physical running game and will not ask QB Everett Golson to do a lot.  In my book, this game will come down to which offensive line can make more room for their running backs.  In that case, the edge goes to Alabama, and their average points per game (38.5) vs Notre Dame's (26.8) illustrates this.
Defense: Notre Dame's Manti Te'o leads the best scoring defense in the country, a unit that only allowed two rushing touchdowns all year along with 10.3 points per game.  The Irish defense is disciplined, fast, and intelligent - with a corps of mobile linebackers and big, strong defensive linemen that were fourth in the nation at stopping the run (92.4 yards per game).  Of slightly more concern for Brian Kelly's team is the secondary, which was "only" 21st in the country in passing defense in terms of yards allowed.  As mentioned, this could be a problem for ND, as Amari Cooper is one of the best playmakers on the outside in the FBS and could exploit the Irish's inexperienced corners.  For Alabama, the second-best defense in the country in terms of points allowed is led by nose tackle Jesse Williams as well as linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosely.  The Tide were 6th in passing defense this year and led the nation in rushing defense, but were gashed in three of their final five games by good quarterback play against LSU, Texas A&M, and then Georgia.  Though Golson is not a star, he could pose problems for the Tide, especially if Williams misses the game with a knee injury, forcing Bama to play more linebackers near the line to guard against the run.  But with all things considered, it's impossible to give an edge here.  Both defenses are elite in every sense of the word.
Coaching: Alabama's Nick Saban is arguably the best coach of his generation, a master recruiter who is the only coach in history to win a National Championship at two different schools.  He's won two of the last three crystal footballs and has rejuvenated Alabama back to their old glory level in his six years in charge.  Still as fiery and joyless as ever, Saban has the intimidation factor and with as much experience he has, his gameplan for the Irish is sure to be very complex after four weeks of plotting in a dark room with Kirby Smart.  Brian Kelly has done the same type of rejuvenation job for Notre Dame, and in three seasons has brought the magic he had at Cincinnati to South Bend for the school's first 12-0 start since 1988.  Kelly is a more offensively oriented coach than Saban, and will have offensive trickery up his sleeve without a doubt.  This one is close, but again I must give a slight edge to the Tide.
Intangibles: If you know me at all, you might think that I have a strictly statistical view of how to interpret sports and infer a result.  That's not the case, and it's not the case here either.  Though Notre Dame has looked terrible against bad teams like Pitt, they've also looked great against some good teams and they are, after all, 12-0.  With the extra week of rest afforded to them by not being in a conference and therefore not playing on the last weekend of the season, the Irish will be better rested and less injured.  It just seems like the Irish may be a team of destiny this season, which could usurp the coaching advantage and the history of recent domination in this game by Alabama.
Prediction: One hell of a football game.  Gotcha!

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