4:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -19.5, Over/Under: 65.5
Finally, the most irregular of seasons comes to it’s conclusion as the College Football Playoff kicks off with a classic matchup of bluebloods, as the (4) Notre Dame Fighting Irish match up with the (1) Alabama Crimson Tide in the National Semifinal from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Due to the rising number of positive cases of COVID-19 in the Southern California region this game, which was intended to be contested at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, has instead been moved to North Texas, not that that should make much of a difference for today’s combatants. That is particularly true in regards to Notre Dame (10-1, 9-1 in ACC), who once again find themselves as sizeable underdogs against one of the nation’s elite powerhouses, desperate to prove that they indeed belong in their company. During his eleven years in South Bend, Brian Kelly has been one of the most successful Head Coaches in the storied history of the program, earning a stellar 102-38 record (.729) which puts him second on the school’s all-time win list. He’s won ten or more games on six occasions, including each of the last four campaigns, advancing to the BCS National Championship Game in 2013 and the 2019 Playoff. However, despite all of his success, there is a stigma that has developed that the Irish can’t compete with the game’s elite on the grandest of stages, with their performance in those two respective affairs fueling that notion. Eight years ago, Kelly’s troops rode roughshod over their schedule en route to the National Final against Alabama, who utterly humiliated them in a 42-14 outcome that wasn’t even that close; the Tide scored the first thirty-five points of the night, en route to amassing 529 total yards, including 265 on the ground. Fast-forward to January 2019, and history repeated itself as the Golden-Domers walked into the Playoff undefeated against eventual National Champion, Clemson, who embarrassed them in a 30-3 drubbing; after trading field goals in the First Quarter, the Tigers ran off twenty-seven unanswered points, outgaining the Irish 538-248. This season though was spent exorcising many of those demons and silencing their critics. For the first (and likely only) time in school history, Notre Dame joined a conference, in this case the ACC, and sprinted through their schedule unbeaten, highlighted by an epic 47-40 double-overtime victory over top-ranked Clemson. Kelly had spent years bolstering his team’s size and athleticism in the trenches, while adding more speed on the perimeter, with the fruits of his labor finally showcased against one of their prime antagonists. The Offense rolled up 518 total yards on that night, led by (Senior Quarterback) Ian Book (64.0% 2,600 YDS, 8.3 Y/A, 15 TD, 2 INT, 148.1 RATE), who completed 22-of-39 passes for 310 yards and a touchdown, while the Defense came away with three takeaways. It was a vindicating moment for many associated with the program, though none more so than Book, who took a beating in that previous matchup with the Tigers, relegated to just 160 passing yards and an interception, while sacked on six occasions and hit on countless others. The Senior took a bit of a backseat to Kelly’s running game in 2020, churning out 217.6 yards per game on a healthy 5.1 yards per carry, with Book himself rushing for 430 yards and eight scores. Hell, he even etched his name in the record books as he became the all-time winningest Starting Quarterback in school history, logging his thirty-first career victory in a 45-21 thumping of Syracuse in the Regular Season Finale. With all that said, playing in a conference and going unbeaten meant playing in the conference championship game, and in this case, doing so in the ACC meant a rematch with Clemson, which would change the whole narrative around this team heading into the Playoff.
When we last saw Notre Dame, their rematch with Clemson was almost as damaging as you could imagine, as they were dismantled with relative ease in a 34-10 drubbing against the six-time ACC Champions. There were two MAJOR differences between this particular matchup and it’s predecessor: the first is that it was competed on a neutral field at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, whereas the earlier meeting was played in South Bend, and the second is this rematch featured a healthy Trevor Lawrence at Quarterback for the Tigers, after missing the first meeting due to COVID-19. It’s turns out that the Heisman finalist and presumed No. One Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft (should he declare, of course) makes a rather dramatic difference for his team, as he absolutely tormented the Irish Defense, completing 25-of-36 passes for 322 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another ninety yards and a score. Things started in favor of Kelly’s troops, who took an early 3-0 lead and picked off Lawrence on the ensuing drive. However, it would all fall apart in short order as Lawrence launched a 67-yard touchdown strike to take the lead in the waning moments of the First Quarter, kicking off a stretch in which the Tigers THIRTY-FOUR unanswered points. Even though they intercepted him once and sacked him on two occasions, the Defense couldn’t come close to stopping Lawrence & Co, who racked up a whopping 541 total yards on twenty-three first downs, including 219 yards on the ground. After rushing for 208 yards and three touchdowns on forty carries in their previous encounter, Notre Dame could muster a season-low forty-four yards on thirty attempts, parlaying to scant 1.5 yards per carry. Though he wasn’t nearly as helpless when they met in that Playoff two years ago, Book was far from as successful as he was back on November 7th, completing 20-of-28 passes for 219 yards with zero touchdowns and interceptions, but was once again sacked on six occasions. Make no mistake, this performance was damning, but it wasn’t damning enough to keep them out of the Playoff, for the Selection Committee ultimately chose them over the likes of (5) Texas A&M, (6) Oklahoma, and even undefeated (8) Cincinnati. Now with the skeptics coming out of their hibernation and the critics getting louder with each passing day, none other than Alabama stands in their way of returning to their past glory. The ball is in your court, Notre Dame, what will you do with it?
Meanwhile, stop us if you’ve heard this before: Alabama (11-0, 11-0 in SEC) enters the College Football Playoff unbeaten and as the No. One Seed. Since it’s inception in 2014, the Crimson Tide have participated in the Playoff every year with the exception of the last, advancing to the National Championship Game on four occasions, hoisting the trophy twice. Three times they entered the Playoff as the top seed, twice of which they were undefeated. So after missing out on the tournament altogether last January, you had to imagine that Nick Saban would be pulling out all the stops to return this year. Coming into 2020, it always felt like the Tide would be an inevitable participant in the Playoff, particularly given the influence that COVID-19 has had on the sport across the country, with so many programs from other conferences racked by the pandemic. However, even though they were fortunate enough to play a full schedule without the virus disrupting their affairs too much (well, if don’t include Saban testing positive twice), it’s still been a remarkable campaign for the denizens of Tuscaloosa due to the plethora of talent that they’ve had to replace. Yes, reloading the roster is an artform that Saban has certainly mastered over the course of his fourteen years with the program, but this season proved particularly daunting given the volume of high-end talent that exited the school. In the 2020 NFL Draft alone, Alabama saw ten players hear their names called, all of which were selected in the first three rounds, including four on the first day. Of that number, Saban had to replace his Starting Quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, his top two pass-catchers, Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, and his top pass-protector, Jedrick Wills, all of which went in the First Round, while five starting defenders went off the board on Day Two. In three years, Tagovailoa accounted for a staggering NINETY-SIX touchdowns, while Ruggs and Jeudy were responsible for seventeen scores in 2019 alone. So with all that said, it’s utterly impressive that the Crimson Tide have not only managed to replace those stars, but appear even better on the offensive side of the football; (Offensive Coordinator) Steve Sarkisian certainly earned his Broyles Award (given to the nation’s top Assistant), for his unit averaged a staggering 49.7 points per game (2nd Overall) on 543.9 total yards, which parlays to 7.8 yards per play, all of which stand as the highest such figures in school history. After backing up Tua for the past two seasons, Mac Jones (76.5%, 3,739 YDS, 12.8 Y/A, 32 TD, 4 INT, 202.3 RATE) has been nothing short of prolific, throwing for 3,739 yards and thirty-two touchdowns over the course of eleven games, posting a higher passer rating (202.3) just short of the 206.9 that his predecessor posted a year ago. He’s developed excellent chemistry with (Senior Receiver) DeVonta Smith (98 REC, 1,511 YDS, 15.4 Y/R, 17 TD), who with Ruggs and Jeudy to take targets away from him, along with fellow Wideout, Jaylen Waddle (25 REC, 557 YDS, 22.3 Y/R, 4 TD) missing the last six games with a broken ankle, has emerged as the most dangerous receiving threat in the country, even claiming the nation’s Offensive Player of the Year award, the first in school history to claim that honor. Even with all of those other stars in the Receiving Corps, Smith still managed to lead the Tide in receiving yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14) in 2019, and this season joins his Quarterback as a Heisman finalist with ninety-eight receptions for 1,511 yards and seventeen scores. Oh, and while he wasn’t named as a finalist for that prestigious award, (Senior Tailback) Najee Harris (214 CAR, 1,262 YDS, 5.9 Y/A, 24 TD) has been the top player at his position in the country, logging career-highs in rushing yards (1,262), rushing touchdowns (24), receptions (32), and receiving yards (316) in two fewer games than he played a year ago. And if all that wasn’t enough, this unit may be getting the aforementioned Waddle back in time for today’s affair, giving them yet another weapon at their disposal.
When we last saw Alabama, they capped their undefeated run through the SEC and cemented their status as the top seed heading into the Playoff with a thrilling 52-46 victory over (7) Florida in the Conference Championship Game. The Crimson Tide absolutely owned the First Half of this affair, leading 35-17 at intermission on the strength of a 31-yard rocket from Jones to Smith, and FOUR touchdowns from Harris the latter three delivered from his Quarterback. However, the tide would turn in the Second Half (no pun intended), where the Gators ran off fourteen unanswered points to cut the deficit to four, though Saban’s troops would answer right back in the early stages of the final period of play with ten straight points of their own. After their opponent struck back to make it 45-38, Jones would once again link up with Smith for the former’s fifth touchdown of night with just under five minutes left to play in the game. Florida would add one more score coupled with a successful two-point conversion to cut the lead to six with 2:07 left on the clock, but ultimately ran out of time before being able to take the lead. In the end, this wild contest included 1,067 combined total yards, fifty-nine first downs, 826 passing yards, and a whopping THIRTEEN touchdowns between the two sides. Jones finished with 418 yards, five touchdowns and an interception on an efficient 33-of-43 passing, with Smith hauling in fifteen receptions for 184 yards and two scores, while Harris rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns on thirty-one attempts and added another sixty-seven yards and three more scores as a receiver to bring his total usage to 245 yards from scrimmage on thirty-six touches. With that said, as unstoppable as the Offense continued to be, Saban had to have been disappointed with the play of his Defense, who gave up a myriad of huge plays against the pass, with Florida’s Kyle Trask torching them to the tune of 408 yards and three touchdowns, both of which were the most relinquished by the Tide in 2020. It bears mentioning that this particular incarnation of Alabama’s Defense hasn’t been nearly as good as it’s predecessors, yielding 243.5 passing yards and fourteen touchdowns to opposing Quarterbacks, while intercepting eleven passes. They’ve been torched for over 300 yards and multiple scores on three occasions this season, though the previous two instances came against (5) Texas A&M and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks in early October. Prior to this matchup with Florida, ‘Bama had relegated five of their previous six opponents below 200 passing yards. Fortunately for them, their opponent tonight is far more inclined to run the football, which should play right into Saban’s hands; his charges have permitted just 107.6 yards per game on the ground on 3.2 yards per carry, keeping five of their last six opponents under 100 rushing yards (74.7 Y/G).