No. 1 seed ALABAMA (11-0) vs. No. 4 NOTRE DAME (10-1)
When: Friday, 1 p.m. PST (ESPN)
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Line: Alabama by 19½
Series record: Notre Dame leads, 5-2
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Alabama is trying to get in the College Football Playoff championship game for the fifth time in six seasons. Notre Dame is making its second CFP appearance, two years after a 30-3 loss to Clemson at AT&T Stadium. The Crimson Tide and Irish last played eight seasons ago, when Alabama won, 42-14, in the BCS national title game on Jan. 7, 2013, in suburban Miami, where this year’s CFP title game is scheduled for Jan. 11.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book vs. the Alabama defense: The fifth-year senior, a two-time captain, is the school’s winningest starting quarterback (30-4) and had 266 consecutive attempts between his two interceptions this season. He completed 64% percent of his passes for 2,601 yards and 15 touchdowns and rushed for 430 yards and eight scores. The Crimson Tide did allow 46 points to Florida while Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask threw for 408 yards in the SEC title game, but their previous six opponents combined for only 53 points. Alabama has 32 sacks and has returned three of its 11 interceptions for touchdowns.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Alabama: Junior quarterback Mac Jones and senior wide receiver DeVonta Smith, both Heisman Trophy finalists. Jones has thrown for 3,739 yards and 32 touchdowns with four interceptions while completing 76.5% (250 of 327) of his passes. Smith is the SEC career leader with 40 touchdown catches, with a school-record 17 this season when he has 98 receptions for 1,511 yards.
Notre Dame: Senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The AP All-American also won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker with 56 tackles (38 solos), 11 for losses. He had one interception and recovered two fumbles, one of which he returned for a touchdown in a double-overtime victory over Clemson.
FACTS & FIGURES
Relocated from its traditional home in Pasadena because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Rose Bowl will be the second New Year’s Six game played at AT&T Stadium in less than 48 hours. The Cotton Bowl was Wednesday night, and the turnover of the stadium started almost immediately after Oklahoma’s 55-20 victory over Florida. … Notre Dame is 4-3 when facing a top-ranked team in a bowl game. … Alabama is 4-0 at AT&T Stadium, including a 38-0 rout of Michigan State in a semifinal game at the Cotton Bowl five seasons ago.
Let’s be clear: The difference is in the dudes. The Tide simply have more elite players and dynamic athletes than the Irish. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly believes the talent gap has shrunk since the Irish lost to Alabama in the 2013 BCS championship game, and he is right. But is it enough to dramatically change the outcome eight years later?
A way to bridge the chasm could start with Notre Dame’s tight ends. Freshman Michael Mayer is likely a future first-round draft pick and Tommy Tremble is a versatile athlete who lines up at several positions. The Irish will also use three tight ends at times.
It’s not so much that the tight ends can dominate the game with their pass-catching and playmaking. SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic says Notre Dame can use them in varying formations and motions to make it difficult for Alabama to identify who is doing what.
“The way you’re going to have success against (the Tide) is basically to not sit still and to get them to line up incorrectly,” said Cubelic, who played offensive line at Auburn.
The Irish offensive line is excellent and should hold up just fine against Alabama’s defensive front, which could give Notre Dame the opportunity to run the ball, milk some clock, let Book make plays with his legs and limit total possessions. That’s important, because on the other side of the ball, nobody is slamming the brakes on Jones, Smith, running back Najee Harris and a Tide offense that averages almost 8 yards per play.
The Irish need to find a few stops to have a chance. Cubelic and ESPN analyst Greg McElroy disagree on the best way to go about getting them.
Cubelic said Notre Dame should take Arkansas’ approach, drop seven or eight into coverage, focus on taking away the deep throws and force the Tide to be patient. Of course, the Razorbacks lost, 52-3, but Jones averaged only 8.7 yards per pass. On the season, he was up over 11.
McElroy said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea should throw every pressure he has at Alabama.
“I think the best way for them to neutralize the throw game is to overload pressure and force the ball out of Mac Jones’ hand earlier than he would like it to be forced out,” said McElroy, a former Alabama quarterback.
The Tide might be more susceptible to protection problems in their first full game without center Landon Dickerson, who was lost in the Florida game to a knee injury.
“That’s a massive, massive loss,” Cubelic said.
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