FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — We’ve had 44 days to dice and dissect and examine every angle of the Notre Dame/Alabama match up.
But it’s all for naught once that first kickoff sails through the air at Sun Life Stadium tonight. Notre Dame plays for its first national championship in 24 years. Alabama plays for its third in four years.
After struggling with this pick all week, logic gives a slight edge to Alabama (something like 23-20) but there’s also a little voice whispering that Notre Dame has won every game as an underdog this year for a reason.
Andrew Gribble, Alabama beat writer for al.com, is on tap for the final Q&A of the season. Here’s how he sees this game shaking out:
Question: Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon get a lot of credit for what they can do on the ground, but A.J. McCarron is statistically the most efficient passer in college football. He didn’t throw an interception until Week 10 against Texas A&M. What makes McCarron so effective?
Andrew Gribble: It’s all about experience with McCarron, who has steadily improved by the game since he saw spot duty as a redshirt freshman in 2010.
That was when he experienced a few growing pains, most notably when Nick Saban whacked him on the back side after throwing a long pass when he should have checked it down.
It’s easy to point to last season’s BCS National Championship as the turning point in McCarron’s career. He threw for 234 yards against one of the best secondaries in the country and unleashed the swagger we all knew he had, but had been shielded as he grew more comfortable with his role. Though there have been a few injuries, McCarron has a relatively deep group of receivers who have his trust.
It’s not just that he isn’t throwing interceptions; he hasn’t come all that close to throwing many.
Q: If people are searching for chinks in Alabama’s armor, they’ll start with Johnny Manziel’s performance in Week 10. What did Manziel and the Aggies do to win that game? Can you see Notre Dame doing what he did?
AG: Manziel had his Heisman moment at Alabama’s expense, so it’s probably unfair to expect a similar effort from Everett Golson. But yes, some chinks were exposed.
The key component was Alabama’s inability to put consistent heat on Manziel. He had too much time in the pocket and was able to A) pick apart the Crimson Tide’s secondary or B) tuck and run the ball toward the perimeter. An underrated factor in that game was what Texas A&M’s defense was able to do to Alabama’s offense while Manziel was red hot.
The Aggies stuffed Alabama on its first series and picked off McCarron on the second one. That forced Alabama’s defense to play tired against a team that always seemed to put points on its opponent before it had time to adjust to Manziel’s game.
Q: A lot of ’Bama backers are saying that while Alabama is the toughest team Notre Dame will play all year, Notre Dame will be the fourth-best team the Tide face (behind Georgia, Texas A&M and LSU). What are your thoughts on that? Will the Irish bring anything that Alabama hasn’t seen this year?
AG: I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, though it’s almost impossible to prove right or wrong without seeing the teams face each other.
I do think Notre Dame will be the toughest team Alabama has faced up the middle defensively, meaning that it hasn’t dealt with a nose guard and a middle linebacker as talented as Louis Nix III and Manti Te’o. Alabama also hasn’t faced a defense this good at stuffing the run, particularly near the goal line.
It’s also hard to compare anyone to Manziel, but I think Golson is the most similar that Alabama will face. He also seems to have a hot hand, which is always dangerous.
Q: We’re all anxious to watch Barrett Jones vs. Louis Nix or how Notre Dame’s tailbacks will fare against the No. 1 run defense in the country. What matchups are you interested in seeing play out?
AG: Along with those, I’m looking forward to see Alabama tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker against Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Kouandjio and Fluker had a few issues early in the season when Western Kentucky racked up six sacks against the Crimson Tide, but they were outstanding against the Barkevious Mingo-Sam Montgomery combination at LSU.
I also think special teams have been highly overlooked. Alabama’s been much better on field goals this season, but has fumbled a few times on punts.
Q: If Alabama is going to come away with its third national championship in four years, what’s it going to take on both sides of the ball? How do you see this game playing out?
AG: If Alabama can find consistency through the air, then it will likely achieve the balance it’s always trying to have on offense. Defensively, the Crimson Tide needs to put pressure on Golson and prevent the “chunk plays” we’ve been hearing about from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Forcing a few turnovers wouldn’t hurt, either.
Alabama was doing that at a rapid rate early in the season, but hasn’t had as many over the past month. The Crimson Tide becomes an even tougher team when it’s able to score early and put immediate pressure on its opponent.
I expect this game to be close, but ultimately see Alabama winning its third national title in four seasons.