By Eric Hansen
The Sports Xchange
Brian Kelly stepped onto the ESPN College GameDay stage and shrugged off boos from cheerleaders from both Georgia and Alabama, perhaps the only time Saturday those two contingents had something to agree upon.
"A career milestone," he called it.
The third-year Notre Dame head coach, who began the year a stride behind purged Irish coach Bob Davie (17-9) and three behind ousted immediate predecessor Charlie Weis (19-7), 26 games into his tenure, has the look of a Southeastern Conference coach now. It's hardly an accident.
Hours before No. 2 Alabama pushed aside third-ranked Georgia 32-28 in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, Kelly explained his philosophical shift from a breakneck-style, time-of-possession-be-damned approach to football to one mirroring the teams playing for a berth opposite Kelly's No. 1 Irish (12-0) in the BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 7 in Miami.
Quite simply, he said, it works.
Kelly knew that before he came to Notre Dame in December 2009, but his job at Cincinnati (2007-09) and Central Michigan (2004-06) entailed selling tickets in addition to winning. He also didn't have a recruiting base wide enough or powerful enough to build a SEC-esque defensive front seven or attract elite tight ends that allow him to power up his offense when called for.
On Jan. 7, Kelly and the rest of the college football worlds get to see just how far that process has come. It will be ND's first game both in the month of January and against an SEC opponent since LSU figuratively booed the 2006 Irish off the stage, 41-14, in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3, 2007.
Here are the numbers, trends and people to watch when the Irish and Crimson Tide (12-1) tangle for only the seventh time in history and first time since 1987:
Manti Te'o, senior linebacker, Notre Dame: The Laie, Hi., product almost landed at USC, his 11th-hour switch to ND the night before National Signing Day four years ago. It's one of four decisions that affected the Irish program's ascent to the nationally title game profoundly.
The other three: A month after Kelly took the job, Te'o decided, somewhat surprisingly, not to take a two-year Mormon Mission; his decision last December to put off the NFL and return for his senior season -- a twist that initially surprised even his parents; the decision to continue to play against Michigan State and Michigan earlier this season days after his grandmother and girlfriend had died.
Te'o statistics and ND's rise got him deep into Heisman Trophy discussion. But his impact goes so far beyond the 103 tackles, two fumble recoveries and seven interceptions -- two off the NCAA record for linebackers.
He is why the SEC-type pieces fit together so well, why Notre Dame has the nation's top linebacker class coming to South Bend when the current recruiting cycle concludes, and he's even a big reason Irish quarterback Everett Golson is ascending late in the season.
Te'o has worked with Golson after practice in film study, helping the first-year starter with recognition of coverages and fronts. Te'o even gave Golson a pep talk before the Oklahoma game on Oct. 27 that Golson credits with helping him have a breakout game.
Barrett Jones, senior center, Alabama: Jones is a finalist for every award an offensive lineman is realistically eligible for and even is competing with Te'o for three others -- the Lombardi, the Campbell Trophy and the Senior CLASS Award.
During his time at Alabama, the consensus All-American has played every spot on the Tide's offensive line at some juncture. That same offensive line, however, has shown some leakage -- a modest 49th nationally in sacks allowed -- but if there's a force that can pull it together in the lull before the national title game, it's Jones.
Everett Golson, sophomore quarterback, Notre Dame: A year ago, as ND was preparing for its Champ Sports Bowl date with Florida State, the then-true freshman was the Irish scout team quarterback -- Rudy with an arm, a high school resume and a scholarship, if you will.
He was realistically ND's fourth option entering a four-man quarterback competition last spring, and was still tag-teamed with former starter Tommy Rees through much of the season after he won the starting job.
The training wheels are off and Golson's expanding skill set and confidence make his early-season numbers irrelevant. He has thrown just two picks since September and has amassed all 305 of his rushing yards since then. No one on the Irish team stands to benefit more from the extra practice time in November and December.
A.J. McCarron, junior quarterback, Alabama: He entered Saturday's SEC Championship Game No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency with a school-record 26 TD passes and three interceptions. He perfectly complements the Tide's defense, by not making mistakes and not giving opposing teams extra possessions.
Though he's not as prolific as say, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, McCarron is one of only three QBs the Irish have faced this season that rank in the top 30 in passing efficiency, and Jones (27th) and Pitt's Tino Sunseri (20th) are much further down the list.
Louis Nix, junior nose guard, Notre Dame: You don't see the 6-foot-3, 340-pound Jacksonville, Fla., native on a lot of All-America tout sheets, but he should be.
Nix constantly commands double-teams, helping free up Te'o and others to clean up on the nation's fifth-ranked rush defense. Against the pass, his surge up the middle collapses the pocket and creates opportunities for end Stephon Tuitt and outside linebacker Prince Shembo to pile up the sacks.
He gets the ultimate matchup in the nation's best center, Barrett Jones, and All-America guard candidate Chance Warmack.
CJ Mosley, junior linebacker, Alabama: Mosley doesn't have the monster numbers some other linebackers have, including Georgia's Jarvis Jones, but he's clearly the leader on a defense in which no one has more than five sacks but 14 players have at least one.
He leads the Tide with 99 tackles and does a little bit of everything, from forcing and recovering fumbles to getting interceptions.
ND'S BLUEPRINT FOR VICTORY:
The Irish strategy against Alabama will mirror their game plan against Oklahoma. Offensively, they'll use their three-headed monster of a running game -- running backs Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III -- to control clock and tempo as best they can against the nation's No. 2 rush defense. In their favor they've already faced Nos. 1 (Stanford), 3 (BYU) and 8 (Michigan State).
To open up the run, Golson must be efficient and mistake-free and take some deep shots down the field in the passing game to keep Alabama from sitting on the run. The Tide's only loss (Texas A&M) and closest call (LSU) this season were the games in which it didn't force any turnovers.
The other two common threads in those games were A&M and LSU amassed more than 400 yards in total offense. Heading into Saturday's game with Georgia, only one other team in the past two seasons (Georgia Southern in 2011) had amassed as many as 300 total yards against the Alabama defense.
Playing with the lead is important for ND. The Irish have outscored their opponents 85-9 in the first quarter, and Alabama, in the coach Nick Saban Era, is 61-3 when leading at halftime.
Defensively, the priority is to slow the running game of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, and take their chances with McCarron. Look for the Irish to play soft coverage between the 20s, then tighten up in the red zone.
ALABAMA'S BLUEPRINT FOR VICTORY:
Even with the nation's No. 2 man in passing efficiency, Alabama's keys on both side of the ball start and finish with the running game.
The Tides' 3-4 defensive look comes from the same coaching tree as ND's, and Alabama plays it like the Irish, putting an emphasis on stopping the run and taking few risks with stunts and blitzes.
Alabama has allowed just 12 100-yard individual rushers since 2005, best by far in the FBS, but they did allow three 100-yard plus games by teams this season and those came in Saturday's win over Georgia, the loss to Texas A&M and the near loss to LSU.
Offensively, Alabama has got to score touchdowns in the red zone. And those will likely have to come from McCarron's arm. Notre Dame has allowed a nation's best two rushing touchdowns this season and has just as many four-down goal-line stands (2).
If Lacy and Yeldon can have a big day, it bodes very well for a victory. Since the start of the 2008 season, Alabama is 48-0 when it reaches the 150-yard rushing mark.