Notre Dame did not need a perfect game to defeat Clemson last month.
In their 47-40 double-overtime win over the Tigers on Nov. 7, the Irish made plenty of mistakes. They struggled to convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns during regulation. They lost a fumble near the goal line. They yielded 473 total yards.
But to drop top-ranked Alabama (11-0) on Friday (4 p.m. EST on ESPN), No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) may need a nearly flawless performance. The Irish enter the College Football Playoff semifinal at the relocated Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas, as 20-point underdogs.
Slowing down the Crimson Tide’s high-powered offense would be a start for Notre Dame. During the regular season, Alabama ranked No. 1 in third-down conversion rate (59.2 percent), No. 2 in scoring (49.7) and No. 5 in total yards per game (543.9).
Led by two Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver DeVonta Smith, along with running back Najee Harris, the Crimson Tide have not scored fewer than 38 points all season. Jones, Smith and Harris rank at or near the top in every major statistical category among players at their position nationally.
What else needs to happen for the Irish to make this game interesting? We caught up with Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News for more insight on Alabama.
• In general, which matchups intrigue you the most in this game?
Hurt: “Ian Book has to make things happen because teams have to score regularly or keep up. So Book vs. the Alabama defense, which includes whether the Irish OL can protect and the Irish receivers can get open.”
• How did Alabama’s offense seemingly not miss a beat after losing wide receiver Jaylen Waddle to a season-ending injury against Tennessee in late October?
Hurt: “Waddle is a great player. DeVonta Smith elevated his game to an even higher level after Waddle was hurt. John Metchie gives them a very good second receiver. They utilize the tight ends. Even without Waddle, Alabama is still balanced because of its running game. Mac Jones makes good decisions. The Alabama OL is excellent but they will miss Landon Dickerson making the calls at center.”
• The “just double team DeVonta Smith!” crowd makes defending Alabama sound so simple. Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that. What have you seen work against Alabama? Are there any weaknesses Notre Dame can exploit?
Hurt: “If it were that easy, I’d be making $1.5 million per year as an SEC defensive coordinator. It’s not. Teams do occasionally help with a safety but you still have to cover tight end Jhaleel Billingsley, Metchie and Najee Harris out of the backfield. Keep a safety out of the box consistently and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will just give Harris the ball 30 times. They average 50 points a game, so “weakness” is a relative term. Obviously if a team can pressure Jones, that helps but opponents either have to win a lot of one-on-ones at the line of scrimmage or get the blitz home extra quick. Otherwise, they will slant you to pieces or go over the top to Smith or Metchie.
“The Notre Dame corners aren’t just going to lock Smith down but you have to pick your spots to shade a safety over. If you just say “double him,” you are playing 9 vs. 10 everywhere else and that means “everywhere.” That math hasn’t worked out for anyone.”
• Alabama’s defense struggled at times through the first few games this season, particularly against Ole Miss. Then they played extremely well before faltering again in the SEC Championship Game. Did that 52-46 win over Florida cause concern, or was it a mirage?
Hurt: “If a team has multiple explosive players on offense, they are a challenge for anyone. That’s true for other teams besides Alabama. Florida, with Kyle Trask throwing to Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, can score 40 on anyone, anywhere. Same with Ole Miss if Matt Corral is on. Texas A&M is close but doesn’t have the dynamic wide receiver. The Aggies are probably the closest thing to Notre Dame — big on the OL, excellent RB and tight end. They scored 24, which isn’t nearly enough.
“Alabama’s 2020 pass rush isn’t Saban’s strongest but is getting better. The front seven doesn’t have a superstar (although Will Anderson and Tim Smith will be there in a couple of years) but is deep enough. They will be tested by the Notre Dame offensive line.
• Overall, what needs to happen for Alabama to lose this game?
Hurt: “If Alabama turns the ball over early, that obviously helps. Notre Dame needs touchdowns, not field goals, in the red zone. Then it might be able to protect a lead. If it reaches a point where a team is two touchdowns behind Alabama and needs three or four defensive stops to win, they are really swimming upstream. Notre Dame can win, just like Florida could have won, but Alabama has to help.”
• Score prediction: Alabama 38, Notre Dame 21.