- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
In the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, we provide a peek into the effects of the long layoffs for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Alabama Crimson Tide between the end of their regular seasons and Monday night's BCS title game, 45 days for the Irish and 38 for the Tide.
The people I talked to, many of whom have been there and done that, provided a ton of insight on the topic, revealing a few common patterns of thought. Chief among them? Walking onto the field after so much time off is like strolling onto another planet, no matter who you are.
"The experience is unique, intense and a little dangerous," admits Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who led Florida to BCS titles in the 2006 and 2008 seasons after 38- and 34-day layoffs. "The gravity of it all can't be avoided, even if you've been there before."
What else did those in the know have to say? We weren't able to hit it all in The Mag, so I've dug out the notebook and dumped it out for you here, the first 2013 edition of our weekly top 5 list, the most likely effects of the long pre-BCS layoff.
1. Offenses will drag early
This seems like a no-brainer because the two combatants are programs built on the defensive side of the ball. However, it doesn't seem to matter who you are or how explosive you might be, a championship game offensive slowdown is inevitable.
It's a trend that has its roots in the very first BCS-arranged national championship game, a sloppy 23-16 affair between what were supposed to be the well-oiled offenses of Tennessee and Florida State. While there have certainly been some high-scoring affairs in the dozen title games since, rarely if ever do those points come in the first half.
The last four BCS title games have ended their first quarters with a combined total of nine points -- a pair of field goals by Texas against Alabama and a field goal from the Crimson Tide against LSU last season.
"It does take a while to get going," says Meyer, specifically referencing the 2008 season's title matchup. In that game, Florida and Oklahoma, teams that averaged 45.1 and 54 points per game, respectively, ended the first quarter scoreless and closed out the first half tied 7-7. "The good news about a long layoff is that it allows you to get healed up and rested up. The bad news is that you lose that crispness that you developed over the course of the regular season."
2. Defenses don't suffer as much of a December hangover
The flipside of those waiting-to-click offenses is that the defenses benefit. At the very least, they are handed more time to shed the same layoff symptoms. At most, they are handed opportunities to make game-changing plays in the early going. They just need to take advantage of them.
"Offense is all about rhythm and timing," says Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who led the Ducks to the title game in the 2010 season. "Great defenses are good enough to alter the pacing of a game too, but ultimately defense is built around reaction. During that first quarter, when the offenses are getting back into the swing of things, that's when a defense can make a game-changing play. The longer the game goes on, as the offenses get crisper, the fewer those chances will present themselves."
In the Gators-Sooners game, eventual game MVP Tim Tebow threw two interceptions in the first half. Neither one resulted in points, the second ending with a scoreless goal-line stand. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford also threw two INTs, the second coming, again, at the goal line.
"Our defense set up the win by taking advantage of those early situations," recalls then-defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, now the head coach at Louisville. "We bought Mr. Tebow and Mr. [Percy] Harvin some time to get their legs under them, and in the second half that's exactly what they did."
3. A month-plus can lead to overthinking
For a couple of chalkboard junkies like Saban and Brian Kelly, having 38 or 45 days to prepare for a game is like straddling a trapdoor. It's more than enough time to roll a cot into the film room and stay there analyzing every single play the opponent has run 10 times over.
Before Bama's November visit to LSU, I asked Saban to identify his biggest football fear. He never hesitated. "It's the X factor. It could be one player who has the game of his life. Or a whole new game plan from the opponent. It could be a single play that looks like nothing you've ever seen on film. That's what scares me. The big surprise."
From LSU it was the suddenly all-world arm of Zach Mettenberger. One week later it was Johnny Football. What might it be from Notre Dame? Or what chances might there be to spring a "gotcha" on the Irish? Figuring that out is important, but can't be the top task on the agenda.
"It's a heck of a balance," says Meyer. "You want to keep the identity and philosophy that got you into that position, to play for a championship, but you also want to add wrinkles. Just not too many. When you stare at film for a month, it's hard to resist getting too cute."
The most-mentioned tar pit is worrying too much about what kind of a surprise the opponent might be ready to spring and as a result worrying too much about your response to whatever your best guess is as to what that surprise might be.
"The amount of confusion in your question is all you need to know about how confusing it gets inside the coach's head," chuckles Texas coach Mack Brown, winner of the 2005 season's BCS championship game and loser of the 2009 season's. "It's important to make yourself get up and walk around and keep this game in perspective. Yes, it's the biggest game you've ever coached. But it's also one piece of one season. You can tweak in preparation for that game just like you did for the dozen or so leading into it."
4. That being said, there will be an X factor
All-new game plans? Not likely. Never-before-heard-of players going nuts? Probably not.
But one new page added to the playbook or one player slipping through for one big play? You can count it. It's just a question as to what or who it might be. Those who have analyzed the game just as much as the coaching staffs have a pretty good guess. And they are looking at three-year-old film of the Cincinnati Bearcats.
"When people describe [Brian Kelly's] grind-it-out style, I'm like, Did you see what we did at Cincinnati?" says Dolphins receiver Armon Binns. Binns and Kelly's '09 Cincy team reached the Orange Bowl averaging 309 passing yards per game. "He just needs to get his personnel in there and coached up. It's starting to happen now."
With that in mind, many are pointing to the season-long development of quarterback Everett Golson, looking to tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Theo Riddick to eat up yards in the middle of the field and to the short corners, where Mettenberger and Manziel made hay against the Bama D.
But the numbers say to keep an eye on wide receiver TJ Jones. Throughout the season the Tide have done an outstanding job of shutting down their opponents' No. 1 receiver, but have had trouble containing second, lesser-known targets. If that pattern holds true, then Eifert could take a backseat to Jones. Only, of course, if Kelly decides to cut it loose through the air in an effort to catch Alabama's waning passing D. Over Bama's first six games, only Michigan threw for 200 yards. Over their last seven, five teams surpassed two bills.
When told of those weaknesses, Kelly laughed. "Yeah, we know. So does Coach Saban. We're all watching the same film." Then he used the example of chess grandmasters staring at the board for weeks, then unleashing a sudden flurry of moves. "After 45 days, you hope you're rested and ready and didn't go to sleep while you were waiting on something to happen."
5. The atmosphere overwhelms everyone, no matter who you are
Much has been written and said, rightly so, about Alabama's third BCS title game appearance in four years versus Notre Dame's first national shot in two decades. On paper, the Tide's been-there-done-that factor would seem to be off the charts. But the coaches who have stood on the sideline for college football's biggest night know better.
That includes Saban.
"Your kids think they are ready for it, but they aren't," says Bobby Bowden, who led Florida State to the first three BCS title games. "It's just a whole different animal, especially in the first half. If I'm not mistaken our opening drives in our three BCS games were a missed field goal against Tennessee, a fumble against Virginia Tech, and a punt against Oklahoma. That's not good."
I looked it up. He was not mistaken. No, it wasn't good. But yes, it's also very common.
"On paper, a few extra days shouldn't matter that much when it comes to preparing for any January postseason game," says Saban, who also won a title with LSU, when the BCS matchup was held in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl. "But your guys have been watching all the other bowl games. Those games have a million stories and promos about the championship game. It's impossible for that not to affect you somehow, especially when you're 19, 20 years old. Heck, I'm old and it affects me."
But just how much? We'll find out Monday night.