Hurt: Alabama a heavy CFP favorite, but don’t expect the 2012 script vs Notre Dame

Cecil Hurt
Tuscaloosa News

Eight years ago, on Jan. 7, in the culmination and championship game of the 2012 college football season, Notre Dame ran into the perfect storm.

The problem wasn’t just that Alabama played well in the 42-14 win. It’s that Notre Dame came to Miami to face a team that had been built to dominate against teams like Notre Dame. When Nick Saban did his first building job at Alabama, he geared his recruiting to beat the teams that he would regard as his greatest competition, primarily Florida and LSU. These were powerful teams that could run the football and play defense and maul other teams in the trenches. Florida had a unique quarterback in Tim Tebow but he wasn’t going to pass opponents silly. The real prototype, though, was LSU and the two games between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers in the 2011 season might never be matched in terms of sheer defensive talent on the field.

The 2012 Alabama-LSU game in Baton Rouge (the T.J. Yeldon screen pass game) was not for the faint-hearted either. A fair argument can be made that Alabama’s sole loss that season, with all due credit to the magical Johnny Manziel, was also a function of Texas A&M drawing the classic “trap game” slot. Whether Manziel was also one elemental catalyst in the “Alabama can’t handle mobile quarterbacks” theme that ultimately led to Saban changing his recruiting priorities and refashioning UA once again is a great topic for another column.

Against the most physical teams, though, the Crimson Tide were rougher, bigger, meaner. Having seen that LSU team, survived it and succeeded against it in the SEC, Alabama must have felt like Notre Dame was little more than LSU Lite. The Fighting Irish had perhaps a half-dozen players who could have started for Alabama: tight end Tyler Eifert, defensive lineman Louis Nix, the linebacker Manti Te’o (had he not been distracted) and perhaps a couple of others. But the fact was that Alabama was built to dominate teams like Notre Dame that season, and did exactly that.

This year could yield another one-sided result. Alabama is a prohibitive favorite of around 17 points. That number probably isn’t moving unless the extensive post-Christmas coronavirus testing shows that allowing players to go home was asking for problems. Notre Dame kept its players on campus although Irish coach Brian Kelly said that was less philosophical and more practical since much of the roster comes from more than two hours away from South Bend.

Even if the final score ends up being very similar, the game probably won’t be. Alabama has not abandoned physical football, of course. Saban would not allow that. But the goal in 2020 is to score so many points so quickly that no one can keep up and ball-control teams are forced out of their comfort zone quickly.

Notre Dame is still a ball-control team. That’s not to say the Irish haven’t evolved in eight years. Notre Dame also has a quarterback, Ian Book, who can extend plays with his legs and find his big-target tight ends and receivers. In 2012, Alabama would pound teams like that into submission. This year, while Alabama has some thumpers up front, its defense is leaner and quicker.

Styles make fights. Perhaps the difference in styles from that last meeting eight years ago will make this game more of a fight as well.

Notre Dame’s Dan Fox, left, and Prince Shembo, right, tackle Alabama’s Eddie Lacy during the 2013 BCS National Championship game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., Jan. 7, 2013. Alabama is big favorite against the Irish in Friday’s Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.