Michael Bradley, Executive Editor
With Saturday’s epic win over USC – a win that genuinely merits the descriptor “epic,” due to Notre Dame’s 4th quarter goal line stand – the football team (12-0) secured its spot in the BSC National Championship Game in Miami on January 7. Its opponent? The winner of the December 1 SEC title game between Alabama and Georgia, two teams who have each obliterated their opponents since their solitary losses. Two Rover sports experts here debate the question: Who does Notre Dame want to face in the Championship?
If you are a fan of Notre Dame Football, you are hopefully praying for a Georgia victory over Alabama on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Both of these teams have won 11 games and lost only one, but as the saying goes, “you don’t judge a book by its cover.” You don’t judge a football team purely by its record. Notre Dame itself was not that far away from suffering a 3 or 4-loss season; we got some lucky breaks and we played well under pressure.
Despite our unblemished record, all rational fans should acknowledge that this Notre Dame team is not perfect; the players and coaches will tell you as much. They have never placed much value on style points and flashy numbers; all year long they have gotten by with a gritty, grind-it-out style of play led by the vaunted defense. The team does not care how they win, as long as they win.
When dreaming of a BCS National Championship matchup, then, rational fans will recognize that, despite the allure of the sexier matchup with the Crimson Tide, the best chance we have to capture the championship is if Georgia prevails this Saturday. Based on these two teams’ respective bodies of work this year (Georgia’s one win against a ranked opponent versus Alabama’s three, etc.) as well as recent history, it is evident that an ND win against Georgia is a surer bet than an ND win against Alabama.
We can throw stats around all day. Yes, Georgia has a more prevalent passing attack than does Alabama, averaging 274 yards per game compared to 219. Alabama prevails in the ground game, however, averaging 214 yards per game compared to Georgia’s more modest mark of 190. It is important to note here that despite Georgia compiling more passing yards per game, Alabama passes slightly more efficiently, with a passing efficiency rating of 175.0 compared to Georgia’s rating of 174.4. In terms of points scored per game, both Georgia and Alabama average around 39. Based on this brief, dumbed-down look at the offensive stats for both teams, I would say that they are about equal on that side of the ball. Once the game starts, the most important stat is how many points the opponent is able to put on the scoreboard, not how many passing and rushing yards they compile on the way.
Defense is what separates these two teams. Arguably the most visible and relevant stat for a defense to hang its hat on is points against. In this category, Alabama ranks 1st in the country, allowing a mere 9.3 points against per game (Notre Dame is 2nd at 10.3). Georgia is very respectable in this category at 17th nationally, allowing 17.7 points against per game. While both teams boast strong defenses, there are few who will argue with the assessment that Alabama is superior to Georgia on the defensive side of the ball. It is also well to note that Alabama’s only loss of the year was a 29-24 defeat at the hands of #9 Texas A&M, while Georgia lost 35-7 to #10 South Carolina, both of which are good football teams. Clearly, both Georgia and Alabama are great teams. It’s just that Alabama is slightly better.
More important than statistics, however, are coaching and experience. When it comes down to one game on the big stage, the most important things are the game plan and how the players will respond to the pressure. Alabama has the edge over Georgia in both of these categories. Georgia coach Mark Richt is a great coach. Nick Saban is the best. Notre Dame’s offense tends to stall in the red zone and leave points on the field. Given a month to develop a game plan against Everett Golson and our offense, I shudder to think of what devilry Saban might cook up. Additionally, Saban is a perfect 3-for-3 in championship games, and Alabama has won 2 of the past 3. This Alabama team has been there before, and they will not stumble under pressure. Georgia does not have the coaching track record or the experience playing in big games that would indicate likely success on the big stage.
Both Georgia and Alabama are good enough to play in the championship game and defeat Notre Dame. At the same time, Notre Dame is talented enough to defeat either. I do not know who will win on Saturday in Atlanta; what I do know is that I want Notre Dame to win the championship. The players and the coaches will tell you it does not matter who they play; they can only focus on themselves, etc. But for a team that has forgone style points all year, it would be dangerous to break the mold and try for some now.
This season has been defined by ND finding a way to win games, someway, somehow. They have a better chance of grinding one out against the Bulldogs. In reality, of course, Notre Dame has no control over who they will face in Miami. But we can always hope.
Tim Bradley is a freshman living in St. Ed’s. He knows all kinds of things about the deep South. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Defending champs on a neutral field? No problem
The Tide can’t keep rollin’ for two years in a row. I think every great competitor wants a shot at the best of the best, and right now, college football’s best program is Alabama. The Irish are primed for a game of this magnitude. With the top preseason schedule in the country, the road to the title has made Notre Dame battle tested. A matchup against the Crimson Tide this season would come at a very opportune time if they indeed win the SEC Championship. Alabama is down as a team right now, coming off of its first loss of the season just a few weeks ago to a weak Texas A&M team with a freshman quarterback that carries that entire offense, Johnny “Football” Manziel. It’s all about who gets hot and gels well at the end of the season, and Alabama has shown it is not that team with the loss to first year SEC team, Texas A&M. Although Manziel is a legitimate talent, Texas A&M is hardly the challenge that Notre Dame would present to the Tide on January 7 in Miami.
Although Alabama would probably be favored by Vegas to win the game with a 12-1 record in the SEC compared to independent Notre Dame’s 12-0, undefeated mark, Notre Dame would have a great chance of bringing the title back to South Bend. Look at the two teams that Alabama has lost to over the past two seasons, LSU and Texas A&M. What do they both have in common? A mobile quarterback and a turnover driven, rock solid defensive unit. LSU, the team that beat Alabama in the regular season last year, had Jordan Jefferson, a dual threat quarterback. They also had a great defense featuring Tyrann Mathieu, Michael Brockers, Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Eric Reid, and a number of other studs on defense. The Tigers intercepted eighteen passes last season, not to mention forcing 29 fumbles. Texas A&M has the aforementioned Manziel, another deadly option both running and throwing the ball. A&M picked off Alabama twice in their matchup and they also have impact players on defense in Demontre Moore and Dustin Harris. Notre Dame is arguably better than both of these defenses. They have 16 interceptions on the year, including seven by the should-be Heisman, middle linebacker Manti Te’o. Bennett Jackson adds four interceptions as the top member of the secondary and a bonafide shut-down corner. Opposing offenses have fumbled the ball 17 times against the Irish defense. However, the most telling statistic for Notre Dame’s defense is the points against category. The Irish have allowed an average of 10.3 points a game, second best in the country. Everett Golson adds that dual threat dimension for the Irish. Golson has thrown for 2135 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also rushed for another 305 and has added five rushing td’s. Golson is certainly a step up from Jefferson, and with the way he has been playing as of late, putting up a career high in passing yards against Wake Forest, Golson is playing comparably to Manziel and is one of the rising stars in all of football.
There is more of a talent gap between this year’s Alabama team and last year’s champion. McCarron returns as the quarterback and is above average, but isn’t the type of player that can put the team on his back. He has thrown for over 2500 yards and 25 touchdowns, but the true identity of the Tide offense is the rushing attack with Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon as the two rotational backs. Neither are as good as Trent Richardson, the third overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. There is some truth to the notion that Alabama has somewhat “reloaded,” but there is no disguising that the Tide lost four players in the first round of the draft as well as Courtney Upshaw in the second round. Alabama just isn’t as strong as they were last year as the National Champions. Most fans probably haven’t heard of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damion Square, Amari Cooper and Tre DePriest. There is a reason you don’t recognize the names of Alabama’s new starters. Notre Dame can go pound for pound with this year’s crop with their stars: Everett Golson, Manti Te’o, Theo Riddick, TJ Jones, Stephon Tuitt, and Big Lou Nix.
Look at Georgia’s roster. They have a three-year collegiate starter at quarterback in future NFL starter, Aaron Murray. The Bulldogs also have the best prospect in the NCAA in outside linebacker and sack artist, Jarvis Jones. Jones is as proficient at rushing the passer as Von Miller was a few years ago. Jones has 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss this season. Georgia also has other talent on their defense in Alec Ogletree and ballhawk safety Bacarri Rambo. Who would want to have to face Jones and his minions with the possibility of them having a field day against the freshman Golson’s offense? Georgia’s running back, Todd Gurley, has had a better season than Lacy. Gurley has 1138 rushing yards, 14 touchdowns, and another 110 receiving yards. The Bulldogs’ backup running back, freshman Keith Marshall, has 720 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell are dangerous options on the outside at wide receiver. Georgia has more talent this season than Alabama does, and are playing well enough to showcase it on the biggest stage in college football.
I will be rooting for Alabama in the SEC Title game this weekend, as should most Irish fans. Not only would this be one of the most hyped championship games of all time, but it would also put all the pressure on the Crimson Tide to repeat. Nick Saban has had his time on top. There is something to be said about losing focus and a little bit of drive coming off of a championship season. Mark Richt has been on the hotseat many times since he took over Georgia’s football team before the 2001 season. He is hungry and ready to prove the doubters wrong. I hope Richt doesn’t get that chance. Root for Alabama on Saturday so the Irish can return to glory for the first time since 1988.
Rich Hidy is a First Year of Studies student, the Rover sports editor, and a lifelong Notre Dame fan. He knows what’s best when it comes to Irish football. You can voice your opinion about the big game by sending him an email at email@example.com.