- Travis Haney, ESPN Insider
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Close, but seven in a row for the Southeastern Conference.
That's the consensus of those I've spoken with here at the national coaches' convention. No one's giving Notre Dame much of a shot tonight against Alabama. And no, it isn't just because we're in a state that houses two SEC schools; the surveyed coaches comprise every region of the country, including the Midwest.
"I just can't see it," one BCS-level assistant coach said. "I think it'd be good for college football, lifting Notre Dame up and getting the SEC out of there [after six consecutive titles], but I really don't see it. Our staff's just amazed Notre Dame's even there."
Only a couple of coaches I encountered in the Gaylord Opryland halls see the game getting lopsided, even with the Tide going off as something close to 10-point favorites. The majority is expecting Brian Kelly -- who was effusively praised by peers, in part for putting up with the pressures of coaching at, and elevating, Notre Dame -- to find ways to keep it close. That, after all, is what the Irish have done all year, home and away, regardless of the opponent, regardless of the stakes. Most coaches who follow Vegas lines (not as many as you'd think) said they were surprised to see Alabama open as anything higher than a touchdown favorite. They thought it would be something between three and five points.
What's the key factor in the game remaining close and, at the same time, the reason that a small group of coaches thinks the game could go sideways? Quarterback play for the Irish.
Everett Golson was the first name to come up. The question: How will the freshman deal with the spotlight of this game, and specifically with the Alabama defense?
"This isn't last year's Alabama D. You've got to say that," one assistant told me. "They're good, but it isn't an NFL who's who or anything. That secondary, have you seen the way teams fire at [No.] 26?"
They have, too, often targeting first-year corner Deion Belue's side of the field over Dee Milliner's. But Milliner hasn't been the sharpest tackler in space, either. Even so, can Golson find ways to take advantage of the perceived susceptibility? I suggested to some of the coaches that Irish tight end Tyler Eifert could be a factor, but they thought it would require more speed and skill downfield. For instance, Texas A&M's Ryan Swope was a handful for the Tide.
Expect Alabama to stop the above-average-but-not-elite Notre Dame run game -- Bama is first in the country in rushing defense, giving up 2.46 yards a carry -- and force Golson to make plays with his arm and not his legs. As much as I've seen people trying to draw parallels between Golson and Johnny Manziel, one won the Heisman and the other was sometimes pulled for Irish backup Tommy Rees. He's a threat, but not a special threat, at least not at this point in his career.
As for Alabama, the primary names that kept coming up were Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, the power-and-speed combo backs for the Tide. The coaches were wondering whether they'll be able to run against Notre Dame. I'm wondering that myself. Will it come down to A.J. McCarron's arm, or can the Tide assert itself on the ground with its pair of 1,000-yard rushers?
I've said I think blossoming freshman receiver Amari Cooper might well be the MVP of the game. Notre Dame did a nice job on USC's Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, but that was with Matt Barkley on the sideline. McCarron is good enough to stretch the field, and Cooper has become the primary target as the season has gone along. All indications are that Kenny Bell will play, giving McCarron another option and taking some of the heat off Cooper.
All that said, I figured during the year that a speed disparity -- high-end receivers versus the Notre Dame secondary -- would show up in some way with Lee and Woods and I definitely felt that way, too, going into the Oklahoma game. It was Fresno transfer Jalen Saunders' breakout for the Sooners, but his 15 catches and 181 yards only provided yards and not necessarily points. Landry Jones had 356 passing yards but no touchdowns.
That has to be the sort of thing Notre Dame tries to duplicate, yielding yards but not points. That's its ticket to the title. But Alabama's offensive line and running backs are far superior than what Oklahoma presented. So it does come back around to that concept, whether Lacy and Yeldon can produce on the ground and allow Alabama to stamp its identity.
When I saw Alabama lose this fall, I saw a team that had lost its general identity. Even in a close game in the second half against Texas A&M, it leaned more on McCarron than the run game. McCarron eventually threw that pick on the goal line to end the game.
That's not to say Alabama is incapable of winning the championship game that way, but it seems less likely, doesn't it? When I saw Bama the next time, the run game willed it to victory against Georgia, even when the defense struggled to get stops.
The Tide line and backs against the Irish front is maybe the best unit matchup, power on power and good on good, that we've seen all fall. That's the way it should be in a national championship game, right?
If it's anything other than an Alabama win, it'll be a surprise to the coaches here in the Music City. If it's anything other than a close game, well, that'll be a surprise, too.
In polling coaches, Travis Haney writes that the consensus is Alabama will win, but it'll be close. The Alabama defense isn't impenetrable as it has been in years past, but can Notre Dame breach it?