Alabama Crimson Tide: Louis Nix
In advance of the game, let's look at five key storylines for the Crimson Tide:
1. The long layoff: UA coach Nick Saban thrives under these types of game situations. When everything is on the line and he has time for extra preparation, he's nearly unbeatable. In fact, he's 7-1 in championship games and he has never lost a national title game. But the layoff was interesting in another respect, too. The time away from the football field was invaluable for three players nursing injuries. Had Barrett Jones not had a full five weeks, who knows if he'd be playing. Linebacker Denzel Devall would not have been able to participate after hurting his knee. And what about wide receiver Kenny Bell? It's a surprise the junior is even on a football field right now after breaking his leg in the Iron Bowl.
Alabama: There's not a whole lot of flash to the Alabama defensive line. Jesse Williams, the formerly mohawked Monstar, doesn't lack personality and neither does the oft-grinning Damion Square. But their play on the field, as a result of coach Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme, is usually understated. Square, Williams and Co. are there to take on blocks and free up the linebackers and defensive backs to make plays.
And by that measure, Alabama's defensive line has been one of the best in college football. Take sacks and tackles for loss -- the traditional measurements -- out of the equation and look at the bigger picture: UA ranks in the top five in passing, rushing and total defense. The Crimson Tide have given up the second fewest points per game in the country, trailing only Notre Dame. Creating negative plays is nice, but winning all four downs is what matters.
Williams is the anchor of the unit at nose guard. The converted defensive lineman has held the point well this season, rotating with Brandon Ivory depending on down, distance and general fatigue. Square and Ed Stinson have served as the primary defensive ends, but Quinton Dial, Jeoffrey Pagan and D.J. Pettway have all played significant snaps. The key for the unit as a whole is size and gap discipline. All three starters come in at more than 280 pounds and have at least three years experience.
Notre Dame: The Golden Domers may operate the same 3-4 scheme as Alabama, but they get different results. Coach Brian Kelly's defense has produced a pair of stars on the defensive line in end Stephon Truitt and nose guard Louis Nix III.
"He’s a high-energy player," UA left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said of Truitt, who comes in at 6-foot-6, 303 pounds. "He’s talented, of course, and it will be an honor to play against him."
With starting defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, Notre Dame averages 311.6 pounds across the front.
Said UA guard Chance Warmack: "They're just really physical, really big up front."
Defensive ends Sheldon Day (6-foot-2, 286 pounds) and Tony Springmann (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) figure into the rotation, along with nose guard Kona Schwenke (6-foot-4, 290 pounds).
Final Verdict: The defensive line may be one of Alabama's biggest weakness as their inability to generate a consistent pass rush has allowed quarterbacks like Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and Johnny Manziel to run wild. Meanwhile, Notre Dame's d-line is arguably its biggest asset. Truitt, Nix and Lewis-Moore have combined for 20 sacks and 27 tackles for loss. By comparison, Alabama has 33 total sacks, 7.5 coming from Williams, Square and Stinson. While the ability to rush the passer is not the end all be all, it could be one of the keys to the outcome of the game.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Louis Nix's work all season long earned him co-defensive lineman of the year honors Friday for Notre Dame. His work between now and Jan. 7 could earn him something much bigger.
Of the many stories-within-the-story of the Irish's title-game tilt with Alabama, perhaps none is bigger than the matchup in the middle between the ascending nose guard Nix and the All-American center Barrett Jones.
"I've seen him, heard about him, he got a couple awards," Nix said of Jones, who has starred at tackle, guard and center for the Crimson Tide. "He played, like, three positions at the O-line, he's an All-America. I'm happy that he's the No. 1 center in the country — that gives me an opportunity to better myself and see where I fit at in the country with other nose tackles that went up against him."
"He's just a smart center," Nix later added. "He knows how to play the game, obviously, because he played three positions on the O-line. So it takes a real good guy to know how to play all three positions. So he's a real smart guy, really athletic, he's very strong at the point of attack. I just have to be ready for him."
With that preparation comes time to heal a wrist that Nix injured during the Irish's goal-line stand at USC in the regular-season finale. The redshirt sophomore — who, like many before him, submitted paperwork to the NFL draft advisory board but is uncertain of his future — said he has done some work in the weight room but should be full-go come game time.
For now, the Irish's funnyman is relishing the chance to face the kind of measuring stick Alabama's vaunted front will provide, and he's ecstatic about sharing defensive lineman of the year honors with end Stephon Tuitt.
"I really never got an award in college yet, so this is the start," Nix said. "Next year I'm trying to be like Manti [Te'o.] I'm trying to get, like, seven or eight of these awards, so it's a start."
AS: The other day Nick Saban called Notre Dame's front seven possibly the best in college football. How do you think it stacks up and what is it about the Irish defense that makes it special?
MF: One of the most overlooked pieces of Notre Dame's defense has been nose guard Louis Nix. He is a junior who came in overweight two years ago, dropped roughly 40 pounds, and then was told last year that he might not see 20 snaps a game. Injuries turned him into nearly a full-time starter last year, and he has taken his game to another level this year. His numbers -- five tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble -- simply do not do him justice. He regularly takes on two blockers at a time, freeing up athletic end Stephon Tuitt (12 sacks) and allowing the Irish linebackers to make more plays. The biggest question for me -- especially after the SEC title game -- is how much pressure can these guys get on AJ McCarron? Is this offensive line invincible?
AS: The offensive line is about as invincible as it gets in one respect -- the running game. When Alabama commits to handing the ball off the Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, there's not much a defense can do. The job Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and Co. do pushing the line of scrimmage is remarkable. But in another respect, the line is somewhat vulnerable. Georgia showed it's not very difficult to get pressure on the backfield. It's why Alabama committed to the running game like it did in Atlanta. There wasn't much of a choice with Jarvis Jones harassing McCarron.
If there's a spot to attack Alabama's defense, it's the passing game. Georgia hit the Tide up for big play after big play on Saturday. Does Notre Dame have enough with Everett Golson to stretch the field and keep the defense honest?
Jan. 7, 8:30 p.m. ET, Miami (ESPN)
Notre Dame take from Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna: Haven't you heard? Notre Dame is back. No, not BCS-bowl back. BCS national title game back.
The No. 1 Irish ran the table in the regular season and are the only bowl-eligible team left that is spotless in the loss column. They navigated a tough stretch featuring opponents from five BCS conferences and two independents. And now they will get one more chance to prove this was no fluke on Jan. 7, when they take on a team from the one conference they have yet to face in 2012: the SEC, winners of the past six national titles.
The key for Notre Dame all season has been the defense, which gives up just 10.33 points per game and has surrendered just 10 touchdowns all season long, with one of those scores coming from the opposing team's defense (Stanford). The Irish showed their toughness in the trenches by utilizing goal-line stands to hold off a pair of Pac-12 opponents in Stanford and USC, and their offense has started to come along after some early-season missteps.
Redshirt freshman Everett Golson went the final three games without getting yanked for performance issues, and he has turned the ball over just once during that stretch. He has been aided by a ground game averaging 202.5 yards per game, and he has flashed his ability to run much more as the season has progressed. He has rushed for 316 yards in his last seven games after netting negative-11 yards on the ground through his first four outings, in which he was benched twice in favor of Tommy Rees.
Speaking of rushing … good luck moving the ball on the ground against this defense. Notre Dame ranks fifth nationally against the run, surrendering just 92.42 yards per game. The Irish did not give up a rushing touchdown until the eighth game of the season, against Oklahoma's Blake Bell. Heisman candidate Manti Te'o gets much of the attention, and he deserves every bit of it, but don't overlook future early-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front.
For all the national talk about the SEC, America probably won't see something much further from last year's title game, as the Irish fit the blueprint of a successful SEC team this season.
Alabama take by TideNation's Alex Scarborough: Believe it or not, the Crimson Tide are finishing the season right where they started. Despite losing eight starters to the NFL draft in April -- including three first-rounders and one Heisman Trophy finalist -- the expectation for Nick Saban's squad remained "BCS or bust" with a preseason No. 2 ranking. After beating Georgia to win the SEC championship on Saturday night, No. 2 is where Alabama will finish in the final BCS Standings of the season.
The talent in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was never in question. Five straight top-3 recruiting classes filled the coffers, and the coaching staff used their young players wisely, incorporating a pair of potential Freshmen All-Americans in running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper. With junior AJ McCarron under center again, the offense has gone to new heights.
The defense rallied around a handful of veterans to maintain its top-dog status. Alabama led the country in total defense for the second straight season after losing stars like Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick , Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. A fresh set of leaders emerged to reinvent the Alabama defense as something possibly less dominant, but more stingy. The Tide created more takeaways and sacks than a year ago, and practiced a bend-but-don't-break mindset in the biggest games.
Like last season, Alabama's path to the national championship game was not without a speed bump, and this time it wasn't LSU blocking the Tide's way. A week after surviving Death Valley and the LSU Tigers, Alabama was shocked at home by freshman phenom Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies, dropping the Tide out of the title race from No. 1 to No. 4 in the BCS Standings. A week later, No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon fell on the same night, paving Alabama's way back to Miami.
Alabama assured itself a berth in the title game by beating No. 3 Georgia in remarkable fashion, surviving an SEC-title record five lead changes. It was the Tide's fourth win against a ranked team this season. Net up is a chance for a fifth, against No. 1 Notre Dame. Alabama will be the seventh consecutive SEC team to compete in the BCS National Championship Game. It's Alabama's third trip to the title game in four years.