- 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 special teams.
Alabama: If there's an area Alabama improved the most dramatically from a season ago, it was on special teams in the kicking game. Cade Foster, who was maligned for much of last season for missing three field goals against LSU, showed off a much stronger leg his junior year. He made four of nine field goal attempts, including three of five from 50 or more yards. That confidence bled over to kickoffs, where he had 37 more touchbacks than a season ago. He and short-range specialist Jeremy Shelley, who made all 11 of his field goal attempts, gave Alabama a piece it had previously been missing -- a safety net when the offense couldn't punch the ball in from scoring range.
Punter Cody Mandell experienced a renaissance as well. The junior from Texas increased his yards per punt and went from two punts of 50 or more yards in 2011 to 12 this season. More importantly, he landed six more punts inside the 20-yard line.
Sophomore return specialist Christion Jones added to his highlight reel with a kickoff return for a touchdown against Ole Miss, but other big plays were not to be had this season as Alabama averaged 24.8 yards on kickoff returns and 10.2 yards on punts. Jones struggled to hold onto the ball in the second half of the season, prompting coach Nick Saban to try out freshmen Dee Hart and Cyrus Jones on punt returns. Hart hurt his knee and was lost for the season while Cyrus showed the rookie jitters. The lack of confidence fielding punts might have contributed to Alabama returning just one of 16 punts in the final two games.
Notre Dame: It should come as no surprise that a team with as many close victories as Notre Dame would have solid special teams performers at punter and kicker. Kyle Brindza broke a school record with 23 field goals made this season despite not taking over the job from Nick Tausch until Week 2. The senior went on to make 74.2 of his attempts, including four of eight from 40 or more yards. While he had his low moments (see: BYU), he also had plenty of high-water marks (see: Oklahoma and USC).
Punter Ben Turk has been equally impressive this season. The senior averaged 40.6 yards per punt, including 13 that landed inside the 20-yard line. Just 10 of Turk's 48 punts were returned.
George Atkinson is a dynamic kick return specialist who hasn't quite played the part this year. Atkinson burst onto the scene his freshman season with two kickoff-return touchdowns in 2011, but has failed to take any to the house in 2012. Whether that's a product of the new kickoff rules is unclear. What's certain is his yards per return has dipped from 26.1 to 20.7 and his longest return of the season is 39 yards.
Final Verdict: When you're looking at two teams that have stout defenses, like to run the ball on offense and are generally conservative in nature, it's best to turn your attention to the special teams. In a game of inches, it's often the players who don't line up on offense or defense that make the difference. In that respect, Notre Dame might have the edge. While neither team is dynamic in either the fielding or defending of punt and kick returns, there is a slight difference when you look at the place-kickers. The two teams have identical field goal success rates at 75 percent, but Brindza and the Fighting Irish have made more -- and with more consistency. While Alabama fans can feel good about the progress Foster has made this season, it would be wise to look at his year in chunks. Through his first four games, he was four for six on field goal attempts. In his last nine games he's missed all three times he aimed at the uprights.