Alabama Crimson Tide: Title game breakdown

How they measure up: Coaches

January, 6, 2013
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 coaches.

Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has been here before. So has defensive coordinator and AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year Kirby Smart, linebackers coach Lance Thompson, defensive line coach Chris Rumph and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. Simply put, Alabama's coaching staff does not lack for championship experience heading into the Jan. 7 showdown with Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban has more than just championship experience working for him.
Saban is familiar with the BCS terrain having taken Alabama to the title game in two of the last three seasons. He's won all three of these games he's played, dating back to LSU's win over Oklahoma in 2003. He knows how to handle the time off and how to manage the pressure facing his players. He also knows better than most that the championship game is not a place to try out new tricks.

"Why do you have to come up with something new?" Saban said of incorporating new wrinkles against Notre Dame with so much time off. "Lots of people do. They think they have a lot of time to practice, so we can come up with a lot of tricks and different things like that. I don't necessarily think that's the way we've done it in the past. I think you technically do what you think you need to do to be able to attack the other team, doing things your players know how to do. If you try to do too many things they don't know how to do, they have a better chance of messing them up."

Notre Dame: What Brian Kelly has done in three short years at Notre Dame is nothing short of remarkable. It wasn't that long ago that the Fighting Irish were agonizing over a pair of failed coaches in Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. It was starting to look like the problems in South Bend were systematic, that the winning ways of Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Domers had run their course.

That, of course, was proven untrue. Kelly built his brand steadily, winning eight games in his first year and eight games the next. It all came together this season as Kelly brought what SEC fans recognize as a thoroughly Southern flair to his team. In other words, he brought smash-mouth, defensive football to another part of the country.

"I think it's very, very comparable," UA offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said. "This is as good a front seven as we've seen. They do a great job jumping in and out of their odd defense and going from an odd to a four-down front, and they've got big, physical, fast players. They run well on the back end, very well coached. They're just a really, really good defense."

Final Verdict: For all that Kelly has done, he hasn't reached the promised land yet. This is his first time on the big stage and how he handles it is still to be determined. For Saban, that question doesn't exist. He has a track record and is working on the D-word at Alabama -- a dynasty. One could go on and on about Saban, but the quality of the UA coaching staff goes beyond the head coach. Smart is one of the hottest commodities in the profession and Nussmeier is making a name for himself after helping quarterback AJ McCarron to a school-record 26 passing touchdowns this season and producing the school's first tandem of 1,000-yard tailbacks.
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.

Cade Foster
Patrick Green/Icon SMICade Foster has been more accruate on his long field-goal attempts this season, but Notre Dame seems to have the placekicking advantage.
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.

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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 defensive line.

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.
Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the matchups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the offensive line.

Alabama: There's little doubt that Alabama has the most talented offensive line in the country. If there was, it was likely erased when the Crimson Tide bullied their way to an SEC title game record 350 yards rushing against Georgia. It was a display of just how dominant the front five can be -- D.J. Fluker bowling over defenders, Chance Warmack bursting to the next level for a key block, Barrett Jones orchestrating the action from center.

But Alabama's line hasn't been without its flaws. In the same display of dominance in Atlanta was a show of weakness. In the first half, Georgia attacked the line and had good success rushing the passer. AJ McCarron was harassed and rattled early on, forcing a number of errant passes that would force offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to turn almost exclusively to the running game.

While Georgia had one of the best pass rushers in the country in Jarvis Jones and a front seven that's arguably more athletic than Notre Dame's, the worry of a repeat exists. The Fighting Irish are balanced up front and can attack the offensive line in a number of ways. Brian Kelly's squad ranks in the top 25 in passing defense, rushing defense, sacks and red zone defense.

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish might not have Barrett Jones, but they have the next best thing in Braxston Cave. The 6-foot-3, 304-pound senior was a candidate for the Outland and Lombardi awards, as well as a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, an award for the top center in the country which Jones just so happened to have won.

Notre Dame's line might not come in with the hype of Alabama's, but their effectiveness is without question. It starts with their experience as all five linemen are juniors or seniors. And all five linemen are big. The unit averages 304.4 pounds with right guard Mike Golic Jr. the smallest at a mere 295 pounds.

"They're a pretty good group," UA defensive end Damion Square said. "The center is a big, physical guy. All those guys have great size on them, great height. They protect (quarterback Everett Golson) back there pretty well. It's definitely a game we're going to have to strap it up and come to play. It's power football."

Final Verdict: Fawn over the skill players and pass rushers all you want, but this game will be decided by what happens in the trenches. Both Alabama and Notre Dame are built on the simple premise that if you win the line of scrimmage, you'll likely win the game. And while both schools have big, powerful offensive lines, there's none more overwhelming and physical than Alabama's. When Jones, Warmack and Fluker get going, there's no stopping them. Every coach that has witnessed the Bama o-line has come away with the same impression. Said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze: "That’s why they are where they’re ranked now and why they’re in the national championship hunt."
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.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManti Te'o gets the headlines but Notre Dame's other linebackers are playmakers as well.
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.
Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the matchups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the wide receivers and tight ends.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesTrue freshman Amari Cooper has become Alabama's best big-play wide receiver.
Alabama: First it was Chris Black who went down with a shoulder injury, then it was DeAndrew White who tore up his knee, followed by Kenny Bell who broke his leg against Auburn. Inconsistency plagued the Alabama receiving corps through no fault of its own. Even the starters couldn't stay healthy for stretches of the season. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and Amari Cooper all nursed injuries at one point or another.

Freshmen like Marvin Shinn and Cyrus Jones have been pressed into service and delivered mixed results. The coaching staff even toyed with the idea of bringing Black back for the final two games of the season.

"We haven't had a lot of continuity at receiver," coach Nick Saban said. "We've got guys playing different positions, Amari Cooper was out the LSU game, Kevin was out the last game. We have a lot of different circumstances going on."

Throughout it all, Cooper has emerged as the go-to target. The freshman who enters the title game with 53 catches for 894 yards is close to breaking Julio Jones' records for receptions and yards for a rookie receiver. He's dazzled with highlight reel touchdowns, most recently connecting with AJ McCarron for the game-winning score in the SEC championship game.

But continuity has been an issue, and not just at receiver. Michael Williams has been a constant at tight end, though he's failed to produce much in the passing game. The senior is fourth on the team with 21 receptions and three touchdowns. His counterparts -- Brian Vogler and Kelly Johnson -- have combined for just six catches and no touchdowns.

Notre Dame: In many ways, the Notre Dame passing game is the opposite of Alabama's. Unlike UA, the Fighting Irish have a first-year starter at quarterback who doesn't take many shots downfield. The result has been plenty of passes to his tight end and not so many to his receivers.

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How they measure up: Running backs

December, 31, 2012
Editor's note: Every day from now until kickoff in Miami, TideNation will break down the matchups position-by-position. Today we'll look at the battle of the running backs.

Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon
Icon SMI, US PresswireEddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon became the first tailbacks in Alabama history to both go over 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
Alabama: Those who looked for a drop-off in production from the running back position at Alabama were sorely mistaken. A Heisman Trophy contender left, and a fabulous freshman talent replaced him. Everyone knew Eddie Lacy would be the man at tailback, but few expected T.J. Yeldon, just a few months removed from high school graduation, would come to Tuscaloosa and earn what amounted to 1A status at the position. The former four-star recruit flipped from Auburn to Alabama after then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn bolted for Arkansas State.

The Lacy-Yeldon tandem has proved as effective as the many before it: Trent Richardson and Lacy in 2011, Richardson and Mark Ingram in 2010, Glenn Coffee and Ingram in 2008.

"We have always had two backs -- it’s sort of a philosophical thing that we like," Saban explained. "Durability is such a critical factor in running backs that if you play one guy all the time it enhances his chances of not being able to continue to play at the same level. It’s always been our goal to play two guys -- not always equally, but fairly equally to where both guys have a better chance to sustain the season at a high level and are productive throughout."

Lacy and Yeldon have combined for 2,182 total rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns. They became the first running backs at Alabama to both break the 1,000-yard rushing mark.

Notre Dame: Like Alabama, the Fighting Irish employ a two-back system, not to mention the production they get on the ground from quarterback Everett Golson. Unlike Alabama, the pair of senior tailbacks don't get the same publicity. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have combined for 1,620 rushing yards, nine touchdowns and 39 receptions this season, helping Notre Dame to the 28th-ranked rushing attack in the country, just nine spots behind the Crimson Tide.

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How they measure up: Quarterbacks

December, 30, 2012
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 quarterbacks.

AJ McCarron: The strong-armed junior from South Alabama took his game to another level this season, going from a steward of the offense to a creator and orchestrator under center. He's shown the ability to make all the throws: the dump off, the intermediate pass and the deep ball. But more importantly, he's exhibited a willingness to take whatever the defense gives him. He's not forcing anything this year, leading to his No. 1 passer rating in all of college football.

McCarron has become a leader in addition to his progress as a passer. He's been a calming force to an offense that was almost completely overhauled at wide receiver. It's hard to believe he's just a junior given the number of big games he's already been a part of. He led Alabama back against LSU and made the game-winning pass to Amari Cooper in the SEC championship. Facing Notre Dame will just be the next challenge.

"This one game is for everything, everything we play for," he said. If you’re not ready to come out and practice every day, or not wanting to, to finish strong, then I don’t know what you play the game for."

McCarron will go against arguably the best defense he's faced all season in Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, who rank No. 1 in points allowed, are young in the secondary but dominant up front. Brian Kelly's squad will likely try to replicate the pressure Georgia put on McCarron in the conference title game, a tactic that led Alabama to nearly abandon the passing game at points in Atlanta. How he stands up to the pass rush and avoids negative plays will be key to his success in Miami.

Everett Golson: Alabama coach Nick Saban put it best. The sixth-year coach has spent weeks watching film on Notre Dame's quarterback and had a message for anyone who doubted his abilities as a passer.

"The guy's a really good player," he said. "He's a very good athlete, first of all. He can extend plays. He can run. He can scramble. He's not typically a guy that just wants to take off. He's a very effective passer. So anybody that thinks he's not capable as a passer is totally missing the boat."

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Alabama Dismisses Jonathan Taylor
Alex Scarborough discusses the Crimson Tide's decision to dismiss defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor after he was arrested on domestic violence charges in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.