Notre Dame to face multiple Heisman Trophy hopefuls in Alabama's high-octane offense

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame had all it could handle when facing one Heisman Trophy candidate in Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on Saturday.

Next, the Irish will need to neutralize an Alabama offense that features three Heisman hopefuls: quarterback Mac Jones, wide receiver DeVonta Smith and running back Najee Harris.

On Sunday, the College Football Playoff selection committee slated No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) to face the top-ranked Crimson Tide (11-0) in the Rose Bowl semifinal. Relocated to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the game is scheduled to kick off at 4 p.m. EST on Jan. 1.

No. 2 Clemson (10-1) and No. 3 Ohio State (6-0) square off in the Sugar Bowl semifinal on the same day in New Orleans.

“It’s an honor for us to be in the College Football Playoff playing against an outstanding Notre Dame team who I’d like to congratulate on the great season that they had,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban told reporters on Sunday. “They’ve got some really, really good players. And they’ve played well as a team all year long.”

The Crimson Tide played a 10-game SEC schedule before downing No. 7 Florida in its conference championship via a 52-46 shootout on Saturday. They won all of their other games by at least 15 points and an average margin of 32.7. No team held them below 38 points.

The high-powered Alabama offense ranks No. 1 in third-down conversion rate (59.2 percent), No. 2 in scoring (49.7 points per game) and No. 5 in total yards per game (543.9). Jones, Smith and Harris rank at or near the top in most of the major categories among players at their position.

Jones does not look like a quarterback playing in his first season as a full-time starter. The redshirt junior took over after 2019 Heisman Trophy finalist Tua Tagovailoa declared early for the NFL Draft.

Former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy in 2008 (76.7) is the only player in FBS history to have a higher completion percentage in a single season than Jones (76.5). Nationally, Jones ranks No. 1 in passer-efficiency rating (202.3), No. 1 in passing yards per attempt (11.43), No. 2 in passing touchdowns (32), No. 2 in passing yards (3,739), No. 3 in passing yards per game (339.9) and No. 6 in passing yards per completion (14.96).

Having Smith to throw to figures to make Jones’ job easier. The shifty senior comes in nationally at No. 1 in receiving yards (1,511), No. 2 in receiving yards per game (137.4), No. 2 in receiving touchdowns (17) and No. 2 in receptions per game (8.9). He should draw a favorable matchup against Irish cornerbacks Nick McCloud and Clarence Lewis.

The Crimson Tide also feature on one of the best ground games in the country. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Harris brings a bruising style. His 24 rushing touchdowns are five more than the second-highest total nationally. He’s No. 3 in rushing yards (1,262) and No. 11 in rushing yards per game (114.7).

“All of those guys have been a critical piece of the success of our offense” said Saban about Jones, Smith and Harris. “But I also think that everybody on offense contributes in a positive way so that those guys can make plays. They would be the first one to tell you about how that togetherness and that teamwork is on offense.

“These guys have played well all year long. It’s going to be important that they make a significant contribution in the game that we have coming up in Dallas.”

That trio continued to produce gaudy numbers after the Crimson Tide lost star receiver Jaylen Waddle for a majority of the season. Waddle suffered a season-ending broken ankle on the opening kickoff of Alabama's fifth game at Tennessee.

Waddle (27 catches for 557 yards and four touchdowns) produced just as impressive numbers as Smith (38 receptions for 483 yards and four scores) through the first four games this season. In 2019, Waddle emerged as one of the country’s best special teams players. He led the FBS in yards per punt return (24.4).

Another key starter on the Crimson Tide offense will be out for the remainder of the season: center Landon Dickerson. The senior suffered a season-ending knee injury during Alabama's game on Saturday. He’s a semifinalist for the Outland Trophy, which goes to the nation’s top interior offensive lineman.

Defensively, the Crimson Tide started to show significant improvement until they struggled against the Gators. Ole Miss recorded 647 total yards, including 268 rushing, in a 63-48 loss to Alabama on Oct. 10. Including Florida, only one of the Crimson Tide's last six opponents rushed for more than 100 yards. Now they rank No. 12 in rushing yards allowed per game (107.6) and No. 20 in scoring (19.5 points yielded per game).

Junior cornerback Patrick Surtain II leads an Alabama secondary that comes in at No. 25 in pass-efficiency defense. Surtain ranks as the nation’s top-rated corner, per Pro Football Focus. The three-year starter allowed just 16 completions for 190 yards on 39 passes defended across the first 10 games.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) runs for a touchdown during the first quarter in a 52-46 victory over Florida in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday.

Who: No. 1 Alabama (11-0) vs. No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1)

Kickoff: Jan. 1 at 4 p.m. EST

Where: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Alabama by 17 1/2