As the Bleacher Report crew recently headed down to Miami to film our preview videos for the BCS bowls, I dove deep into the games at 34,000 feet.
With a few small bottles of Jack Daniels seated comfortably on my tray table, I studied the matchup between Alabama and Notre Dame like a student cramming for an exam. Well, minus the bourbon, of course.
And the more I looked and dove deep into football thought, the more I found myself leaning toward the underdog.
The result of such whiskey-infused contemplation—as well as hundreds of hours of football digestion this fall—led to this video, shot in front of Sun Life Stadium.
You can spot me pretty easily. I’m the one who looks like a male model. OK, all the gentlemen in the video look like male models, but I’m the one with the Michael Buffer voice. If that isn’t an adequate description, I’m also the only person at the tailgate to pick Notre Dame to come away victorious.
21-20 Notre Dame is indeed my BCS National Championship Game score prediction. The bookmakers out in Las Vegas have marked the Irish a nine- to 10-point underdog, which is quite telling when it comes to their expectations. Despite the sports books’ stance, I am holding mine.
The fact that we’re even talking about whether the Irish “stand a chance” seems almost insulting given the deep talent on their team. It hasn’t always been pretty—and at this point that’s stating the obvious—but the Irish maneuvered through a formidable schedule to get to where they are now.
It’s no fluke, either. They got breaks, certainly, but they made their own breaks to get here. That’s what has to happen to make it to the championship game. Just ask the Tide, who needed an upset-packed Saturday night to punch their ticket. You make the breaks or the breaks make you. That’s the way it works.
That being said, I understand why Vegas and others are foreseeing a blowout in Nick Saban’s favor. For the Irish to topple Alabama, they will have to outperform expectations and play their best game of the season by a significant margin.
And I believe that’s exactly what they’ll do.
Make no mistake: The giant layoff and unbelievable stakes create an unpredictable scenario. These teams haven’t played a football game in more than 40 days, and they’ll suddenly be tossed into the most hyped (and watched) game in the history of college football. This alone adds a significant element of unpredictability as we assess the many variables.
No variable, however, is greater than the one Notre Dame will bring to this game. Quarterback Everett Golson is the Great Unknown, and the Irish will likely need him to have his best collegiate game yet to win this game.
I hit on this at length recently, and I believe Golson will be up to the challenge. His development—albeit against lesser competition than what he’ll be facing—has been remarkable. His physical gifts are obvious. The extra 40 days will benefit him more than anyone else, and more time with Brian Kelly, on the field and in the film room could pay huge dividends.
While the Alabama defense is still dominant, it’s not close to being the dominant force we’ve seen in recent years. The defense gave up an average of 272 yards passing in its final three games against teams not named West Carolina and Auburn. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was particularly successful, throwing for 298 yards.
Rollouts, play action and moving the pocket seemed to create a successful formula, and I imagine Brian Kelly will go to this blueprint early on. Running back Theo Riddick and tight end Tyler Eifert are also very gifted offensive players, and their touches will be critical to the outcome of this game.
On the other side, the Alabama offensive line is special. This, more than anything, made me proceed with caution when it came to picking against the Tide. They are mean, physical, athletic, large…everything you want in your front. They’re also blocking for two of the most impressive running backs in college football. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon might be the country's best two-headed monster.
The Irish won’t be able to stop this altogether, but they will be able to slow them down. Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III may end up being the best player on the field, as strange as that is to think about right now. His matchup against Alabama lineman Barrett Jones—who has been in a walking boot leading up to the game—will also be crucial in deciding a winner.
Notre Dame ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt are also very gifted, and the Alabama running game could (finally) be held in check. Perhaps nothing can stop it, but it will be tested. There's also that guy Manti Te'o playing behind them, ready to clean up anything that might get by.
This leads us to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who is a wild card of sorts. He was brilliant in last year’s national championship game, perfect through a good portion of this season, and yet, has struggled a bit down the stretch. His big plays—and they have been huge in some tense moments—have come on deep passes and screens.
McCarron’s not a guy to bet against, but getting him in 3rd-and-long situations—something Georgia was not able to do in the SEC Championship Game—should be what Notre Dame’s after. No secret there, Football 101.
One or two big plays (or missed plays) will likely be the difference in this game. It seems like an impossible mountain to climb, but I believe the game itself could very well live up to the unthinkable hype bestowed upon it.
And while I am predicting Notre Dame to edge the great Nick Saban in an all-timer, a Crimson Tide win would be far from shocking. Even in a year where a good chunk of their talent headed to the NFL, here they are.
Forget about the SEC’s recent struggles in bowl games this season as a reason to pick against Alabama. Hinging a prediction on this alone is not wise. In fact, my prediction is based squarely on the Irish’s potential in the final 60 minutes of the season.
I have a great deal of confidence in Golson, and much of this forecast rests on his shoulder and legs. Brian Kelly’s defense will also provide Alabama with a unique challenge, one capable of slowing down its mighty offense. It all sounds so easy on paper.
Although many have tried to bill Notre Dame as a “team of destiny,” I don’t buy it. There is something incredibly special about this group beyond just supreme talent at key positions, but “destiny” doesn’t accurately encompass the Irish's season or the way they've won.
Destiny implies that this was planned all along, which I don’t feel to be true. They know how to win in a variety of ways, which they proved all season.
And I believe they will do it once more.
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