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BCS Championship Game preview: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Frank Schwab
Dr. Saturday

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(USA Today Sports Images)

BCS Championship Game
Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1)
Jan. 7, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Irish's offensive keys: The storyline of Notre Dame's offense changed late in the season. Early on it was all about quarterback Everett Golson's inconsistency, and how Tommy Rees would have to be called in from the bullpen to bail out the Irish. Golson improved dramatically down the stretch, and it can be traced back to Brian Kelly leaving him in the game despite a bad fourth quarter interception against Pitt with Notre Dame trailing. From that point he threw six touchdowns and only one interception, ran for two other scores, and his yards per attempt skyrocketed. His best target is tight end Tyler Eifert, who won the Mackey Award given to the nation's top tight end. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood are a solid 1-2 combination at running back. They combined for 1,620 rushing yards in the regular season.

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Louis Nix (9)and Stephon Tuitt (7) (USA Sports Today Images)

Irish's defensive keys: The Notre Dame defensive line has to hold up against the Crimson Tide's massive offensive line, but the Irish has the personnel to do that. Louis Nix, a 326-pound nose tackle, is one of the reasons the Irish's defense was so good this year. Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt are 300-pound ends who are productive as well. Their play is a huge factor in this game. We all know about Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's great inside linebacker. Notre Dame's secondary will have to prevent the big play, something it was pretty good at doing this season.

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Barrett Jones (USA Today Sports Images)

Crimson Tide's offensive keys: Barrett Jones' health is a big deal for Alabama. The senior center has been hobbled since the SEC Championship Game with an injured foot, and although he says he will play, he has his hands full with Nix. Jones is a great player who won the Rimington Award given to the nation's top center and has already started BCS title games at right guard and left tackle. He's part of a phenomenal line that dominated Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are both explosive players who benefit from huge holes up front. Quarterback A.J. McCarron's top target is freshman receiver Amari Cooper, who had 895 yards and nine touchdowns, has evoked comparisons to Julio Jones and will be a star for years to come.

[Pat Forde: BCS championship game tale of the tape]

Crimson Tide's defensive keys: Alabama led the nation in rushing defense and total defense and finished second in points allowed ... to Notre Dame. This defense is spectacular, with elite talent on every level. On the line, Jesse Williams is the star, a strong nose tackle who can control the interior. Outside linebacker C.J. Mosley is as good as any linebacker in the country - including the Heisman finalist on the other sideline. His 99 tackles were 43 more than any other Tide player, and he can blitz or drop in coverage equally well. Dee Milliner is perhaps the top cornerback in the country. He broke up 18 passes - nobody else on Alabama's defense broke up more than six.

Special teams matchup: If anyone is going to make a big special teams play, it's probably Alabama. Notre Dame doesn't get much in the return game, ranking 115th in punt return average in FBS and 82nd in kickoff return average. The Irish's coverage units aren't great either. Alabama's Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones are capable of a big kick return.

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Manti Te'o (USA Today Sports Images)

Irish key number: 33
Notre Dame has had 33 unanimous All-Americans in school history, and Te'o is the 33rd. He is the first ND linebacker to get that honor since 1990. A lot of this game will focus on Te'o, who is playing for the Irish for the last time. He deserves all the publicity that he gets. He has been one of the biggest and best stories in college football this year, a standout player who has represented his school, his family and the game tremendously well on and off the field. He has 103 tackles and seven interceptions this year for a defense that allowed just 10 touchdowns in 12 games.

[Pat Forde: Brian Kelly, Nick Saban better off avoiding NFL]

Crimson Tide key number: 6
Six times this season, Alabama held its opponent to seven or fewer points. That includes four shutouts. The Crimson Tide's strength is against the run, as it allowed just 2.46 yards per carry this season. That doesn't bode well for Notre Dame, which wants to establish a ground game.

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C.J. Mosley (USA Today Sports Images)

The breakdown: This is a game between two teams with a lot in common. They have a lot of history. They have great coaches in Nick Saban and Brian Kelly. They're both pretty nasty on defense, especially in the front seven. Conventional wisdom says this should be a low-scoring game. Notre Dame's defense might not be getting enough credit for how great it was. The Irish allowed just 10 touchdowns all season to a balanced schedule that included 10 teams that won at least six games, and no games against non-FBS patsies. Of course, to win, the Irish will need to figure out how to move the ball against Alabama. A lot of that falls on Golson continuing his late-season surge and making some plays.

Predictions
Frank Schwab: Alabama 20, Notre Dame 10

Notre Dame is a very good team. It went on the road and soundly beat Oklahoma and USC. The defense is one of the elite units in the nation. I just can't figure out how the Irish is going to consistently generate offense. I see a scenario in which Alabama's big offensive line wears on Notre Dame and scores a late touchdown to seal a hard-fought win.

Graham Watson: Notre Dame 14, Alabama 10
All week here in south Florida, Alabama fans have been coming up to me telling me how the Crimson Tide is going to crush the Irish by four touchdowns. The last time Alabama fans were so brazen in a BCS bowl? The Sugar Bowl against Utah and we all know how that turned out. Alabama is fallible. I don’t think many would have said that until the second half of the season, but it’s clear the Tide can be beaten. Notre Dame has played charmed all season. There are several games it should have lost and yet somehow managed to win. The Irish offense is suspect, but the defense is fantastic. They’re going to need some things to go their way, but no one should be surprised when Notre Dame pulls off the upset to cap an improbable season.

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