Players to watch: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Here’s a look at a few players to watch in Friday’s game (4 p.m. EST on ESPN) between top-ranked Alabama (11-0) and No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) at the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl semifinal in Arlington, Texas.


Third down is the one category in which the Irish hold a significant advantage over the Crimson Tide. Notre Dame ranks No. 9 nationally in third-down conversion rate (49.3 percent). Alabama comes in at No. 70 in third-down defensive conversion rate (40.6 percent). Mayer (35 catches for 388 yards and two touchdowns) has been quarterback Ian Book’s most reliable target on third down. He will be even more important if Crimson Tide cornerback Patrick Surtain II locks down his side of the field as usual.


Slowing down the nation’s best offense in the country means Notre Dame will need to use Hamilton wisely. The Irish could deploy him to shadow top Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (98 catches for 1,511 yards and 17 touchdowns) in double-coverage. Or they could feature him closer to the line of scrimmage in hopes to bottle up Alabama running back Najee Harris (214 carries for 1,262 yards and 24 scores). Or maybe he could alternate between both duties depending on the situation. How Notre Dame uses its rangy, versatile safety will be worth monitoring.


Smith cannot be contained. The shifty senior eclipsed 150 receiving yards seven times in his last nine games. Across his last six games, Smith totaled 53 receptions for 955 yards and 13 touchdowns. Smith also managed to produce when facing the SEC’s best defensive backs. So he’s expected to find success against a Notre Dame secondary that struggles against potent passing attacks. Considering how he can be used in a variety of ways, Smith could exploit ND’s weaknesses at strong safety and field cornerback. With the attention he attracts, Smith also could create opportunities for his teammates.


Surtain is expected to be a tough matchup for top Notre Dame wide receiver Javon McKinley (40 catches for 697 yards and three touchdowns). Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said Surtain is probably the best college football cornerback he’s ever seen. The junior was named to the Associated Press All-American first-team on Monday, joining teammates in quarterback Mac Jones, offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson, Harris and Smith. In 43 passes defended this season, Surtain allowed just 18 completions for 250 yards. He tallied 32 tackles, two tackles for a loss and 10 pass breakups.

RIGHT: Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II (2) returns an interception for a touchdown against Mississippi State this season.
Georgia Tech wide receiver Nate McCollum (88) is not able to catch a pass under pressure from Notre Dame’s safety Kyle Hamilton (14) on Oct. 31.

No. 4 NOTRE DAME (10-1) vs. No. 1 ALABAMA (11-0)

Kickoff: Friday at 4 p.m. EST

Where: AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas


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

Line: Alabama by 20