In less than 30 days, the Alabama Crimson Tide will face top-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame for the 2012 BCS title.
For the Tide, the chance to win a second consecutive national title and their third in the last four years lies primarily on the back of its incredibly effective offensive line.
Seniors Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack were both named last week as All-Americans by ESPN. Junior D.J. Fluker was voted second team All-SEC by AP. Junior Anthony Steen and Sophomore Cyrus Kouandjio fill out the line and could start for any team in the conference.
This crew is widely considered to be among the best offensive lines in the nation and has been the glue that holds the Alabama offense together.
Known best for run-blocking, the Alabama line provided Cadillac-sized holes all night as the Tide ran for 350 yards against Georgia in the SEC title game just over a week ago. They will attempt to do the same against the Irish.
On the year, Alabama running backs are averaging over five-and-a-half yards per carry, totaling just under 3000 yards and scoring 35 touchdowns. In games against four ranked opponents, the Tide has been even better, averaging 5.84 yards per attempt.
The Irish, on the other hand, rank fourth nationally against the run and allow just 92 yards per game on the ground and just over three yards per attempt. Against ranked opponents, they have been even more effective and have allowed just one rushing score.
For Notre Dame to have any kind of chance in this game, it will have to find a way to limit running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Both have run for over 1000 yards on the year.
Led by its center, Jones, Alabama has no plans on allowing that to happen.
Yet if Notre Dame can manage to corral these two with reasonable effectiveness, it will force the Tide to throw the ball in long-yardage situations. This is where the Irish defense can even out the playing field.
The Alabama line has allowed 23 sacks on the year, placing it firmly in the middle of the pack nationally. The Notre Dame defense has recorded 33 sacks, which is the 15th best in the country.
The Irish have a pair of menacing quarterback hounds on their squad and are led by lineman Stephon Tuitt, who has 11 sacks, and Prince Shembo, who has 8 of his own.
Then there are the interceptions.
Against the pass, Notre Dame has allowed only 59 percent of ranked opponents' passes to be completed and has intercepted eight passes while allowing no touchdowns in those games.
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has completed just 57 percent of his passes, with five touchdowns and three interceptions against ranked opponents.
This plays into Notre Dame's hands. But it will not be an issue if they cannot prevent the Alabama line from imposing its will and providing lanes for Lacy and Yeldon to run. If Alabama can run at will, it will also be able to pass at will.
Notre Dame absolutely must keep this a low-scoring game. If you remember the 9-6 loss Alabama suffered to LSU in Tuscaloosa last fall, that is the game Notre Dame is praying it can replicate.
Notre Dame averages just 26.8 points per game. Alabama averages 38.5.
Defensively, both teams allow just a hair over ten points per game.
Here is the statistic that stands out. Since the beginning of the 2008 season, Alabama has played 30 opponents that have averaged under 27 points per game.
In those games, Alabama is 30-0 and has given up an average of just 7.7 points in those games. Only 11 of the 30 cracked double digits, and only one (Kentucky) scored 20.
Notre Dame will not score 20 points in this game. It is simply not going to happen.
Therefore, in order for the Irish to win their first national title since 1988, Notre Dame will have to hold the Tide under 20 as well.
This feat has been accomplished just four times in Alabama's last 68 games and only once in the last 45.
The key to victory fort Alabama is extremely basic. They must dominate up front, as they typically do. Create running lanes and use them to later open up the passing attack.
To put it simply, if the 'Bama offensive line does what it has done in almost every game over the last five seasons, Notre Dame has no chance to beat the Tide.
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