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Fighting Irish outlook: Golson, a sophomore, has never been spectacular, but he gives the offense a dual-threat at quarterback. He threw 11 touchdowns with five interceptions this season. He also ran for five scores.
But Notre Dame relies more heavily on its defense, and it’s a good one, led by all-everything linebacker Manti T’eo. The Irish are No. 1 in scoring defense, fourth in rushing defense and fifth in total defense.
Kicker Kyle Brindza made five field goals against USC, including a career-long 52-yarder. But he’s missed eight kicks between 34 and 43 yards.
The Fighting Irish have been utilizing the no-respect card as a motivator throughout the season, and the oddsmakers provided them with more fuel by installing the one-loss Crimson Tide as a 10-point favorite. Notre Dame played perhaps its best game in a 30-13 rout at Oklahoma on Oct. 27 - another contest in which it was a huge underdog and the consensus was that the Irish could not compete.
Crimson Tide outlook: McCarron has been brilliant in his second season as the starter, throwing 26 touchdowns with only three interceptions. The Tide’s running game ravaged a Georgia defense loaded with NFL talent. And freshman receiver Amari Cooper has emerged as a weapon of mass destruction.
Alabama’s defense has been stout and should be fired up after hearing about how Georgia moved up and down the field on them for a full month.
Kicker Jeremy Shelley is money from short range. Cade Foster is the Tide’s option for field goals over 40 yards and has been so-so.
Few would argue that Kelly has done the best coaching job in the country this season in compiling his second 12-0 regular season in four years (the previous one was at Cincinnati in 2009). But Saban is looked upon as a modern-day Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa, not only winning two national titles with Alabama but claiming one at LSU in 2003. There have been whispers that Saban could be NFL-bound after the season, but he has steadfastly denied the rumors.
Irish's offensive keys: The storyline of Notre Dame's offense changed late in the season. Early on it was all about quarterback Everett Golson's inconsistency, and how Tommy Rees would have to be called in from the bullpen to bail out the Irish. Golson improved dramatically down the stretch, and it can be traced back to Brian Kelly leaving him in the game despite a bad fourth quarter interception against Pitt with Notre Dame trailing. From that point he threw six touchdowns and only one interception, ran for two other scores, and his yards per attempt skyrocketed. His best target is tight end Tyler Eifert, who won the Mackey Award given to the nation's top tight end. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are a solid 1-2 combination at running back. They combined for 1,620 rushing yards in the regular season.
Irish's defensive keys: The Notre Dame defensive line has to hold up against the Crimson Tide's massive offensive line, but the Irish has the personnel to do that. Louis Nix, a 326-pound nose tackle, is one of the reasons the Irish's defense was so good this year. Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt are 300-pound ends who are productive as well. Their play is a huge factor in this game. We all know about Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's great inside linebacker. Notre Dame's secondary will have to prevent the big play, something it was pretty good at doing this season.
Crimson Tide's offensive keys: Barrett Jones' health is a big deal for Alabama. The senior center has been hobbled since the SEC Championship Game with an injured foot, and although he says he will play, he has his hands full with Nix. Jones is a great player who won the Rimington Award given to the nation's top center and has already started BCS title games at right guard and left tackle. He's part of a phenomenal line that dominated Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are both explosive players who benefit from huge holes up front. Quarterback A.J. McCarron's top target is freshman receiver Amari Cooper, who had 895 yards and nine touchdowns, has evoked comparisons to Julio Jones and will be a star for years to come.
Crimson Tide's defensive keys: Alabama led the nation in rushing defense and total defense and finished second in points allowed ... to Notre Dame. This defense is spectacular, with elite talent on every level. On the line, Jesse Williams is the star, a strong nose tackle who can control the interior. Outside linebacker C.J. Mosley is as good as any linebacker in the country - including the Heisman finalist on the other sideline. His 99 tackles were 43 more than any other Tide player, and he can blitz or drop in coverage equally well. Dee Milliner is perhaps the top cornerback in the country. He broke up 18 passes - nobody else on Alabama's defense broke up more than six.
Frank Schwab: Alabama 20, Notre Dame 10
Notre Dame is a very good team. It went on the road and soundly beat Oklahoma and USC. The defense is one of the elite units in the nation. I just can't figure out how the Irish is going to consistently generate offense. I see a scenario in which Alabama's big offensive line wears on Notre Dame and scores a late touchdown to seal a hard-fought win.
Graham Watson: Notre Dame 14, Alabama 10
All week here in south Florida, Alabama fans have been coming up to me telling me how the Crimson Tide is going to crush the Irish by four touchdowns. The last time Alabama fans were so brazen in a BCS bowl? The Sugar Bowl against Utah and we all know how that turned out. Alabama is fallible. I don’t think many would have said that until the second half of the season, but it’s clear the Tide can be beaten. Notre Dame has played charmed all season. There are several games it should have lost and yet somehow managed to win. The Irish offense is suspect, but the defense is fantastic. They’re going to need some things to go their way, but no one should be surprised when Notre Dame pulls off the upset to cap an improbable season.
Rana L. Cash, senior college football editor: “Alabama 24, Notre Dame 21. All season long, Alabama looked like world-beaters. Then came one fateful night against Texas A&M. Notre Dame won 'em all, but there were no beatdowns like the ones the Tide have delivered.”
Bob Hille, deputy editor: “Notre Dame 24, Alabama 17. We're programmed to think Bama is unbeatable, but the Tide have shown a susceptibility to mistakes at crucial times. It's just been that the opposition hasn't been able to leverage them. The Irish are good enough to do just that.”