- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the match-ups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the linebackers.
Alabama: What Alabama lost in experience from a season ago, the Crimson Tide made up for with depth. Coach Nick Saban loves to create personnel packages for every situation, whether it be third-and-long or fourth-and-goal, and with versatile linebackers like Adrian Hubbard and C.J. Mosley, he had the options to make his schemes work effectively.
Mosley was the most productive linebacker this season, leading the team with 99 tackles. The last Alabama defender to break the century mark? Former All-American and eventual first-round pick Rolando McClain. Mosley sits one tackle away from 100 despite not being the clear-cut starter. He shares time with both Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest at inside linebacker depending on the formation and down and distance.
Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are the primary options at outside linebacker. Their talent is undeniable but they've had their ups and downs. Hubbard leads the team with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Talented freshman Denzel Devall figures into the rotation as well. Another rookie to keep an eye on is converted defensive end D.J. Pettway, who could play at Jack where he can utilize his skill rushing the passer, an area Alabama has struggled to gain consistency.
Notre Dame: Saban called Notre Dame's front seven the best he's seen in college football this season, and it's led by a linebacker who was a strong contender to become the first purely defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. Of course Johnny Manziel took home the bronze statue, but it did nothing to diminish the play of Manti Te'o.
Te'o saved his best for last, racking up the Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus and Walter Camp Awards his senior year. He finished 59th in the country with 103 tackles, helping the Fighting Irish to the No. 1 scoring defense. He's the total package, with the strength to take on linemen in run support and the speed to track down receivers over the middle. If there's a linchpin to the Notre Dame defense, it's Te'o.
Outside of Te'o, Notre Dame has a pair of future NFL players in Dan Fox and Prince Shembo. Fox, who has 57 tackles, starts at inside linebacker and Shembo, who leads the team with 12 quarterback hurries, is the Irish's best pass rusher at outside linebacker. Carlo Calabrese, Danny Spond and Ishaq Williams round out the bulk of the rotation at linebacker in Brian Kelly's 3-4 alignment.
Final Verdict: Notre Dame's star power at linebacker isn't without reason. Te'o is capable of changing the outlook of the game, especially when it comes to Alabama's ability to run the football. If he can stuff the run and force the burden on the passing game, the Irish could be in good shape as UA has struggled in pass protection throughout the season, most recently in the first half against Georgia. Unlike some of the top defenses Alabama has faced, Notre Dame can stop the run and affect the pass. The Fighting Irish rank in the top 25 overall in rushing defense, passing defense, yards allowed and sacks. While Alabama has depth at linebacker, it doesn't have the top producers like Notre Dame.