Notre Dame will need flawless game to upset Alabama in Rose Bowl

Paul Myerberg
Usa Today

The matchup is a television executive’s dream: Alabama against Notre Dame in the national semifinals of the College Football Playoff.

Whether the game meets the hype is in serious doubt after the Fighting Irish lost 34-10 to Clemson in the ACC championship game, revealing serious flaws and weak spots after Notre Dame’s charge toward an unbeaten regular season.

“This is a strong football team, strong-willed,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “It’s an outstanding football team. They’ll bounce back.”

The loss rekindled concerns over how Notre Dame has fared amid similar stakes throughout Kelly’s tenure and beyond. The Irish have reached the equivalent of six New Year’s Six bowls since 2000 and lost each by two or more touchdowns, most recently losing 30-3 to Clemson in the 2018 national semifinals.

After beating the Tigers in overtime during the regular season, Notre Dame seemed unable to stop Clemson at full strength. With quarterback Trevor Lawrence back under center, the Tigers gained 541 yards of total offense and averaged more than eight yards per play. With senior James Skalski back at linebacker, the Tigers’ defense held the Irish to just 263 yards, about half of Notre Dame’s total in November.

It will take something close to perfection to take down the Crimson Tide on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl, being played in Arlington, Texas, after it was moved from Southern California because of COVID-19 complications.

Alabama leads the Power Five in scoring (49.7 points per game) and yards per play. The offense has averaged more yards per play against ranked than unranked opponents after gaining 605 yards in the 52-46 win against Florida to clinch another SEC championship.

Quarterback Mac Jones, a heavy Heisman Trophy favorite, has thrown for 32 touchdowns against just four interceptions while averaging 11.4 yards per attempt. The team’s second Heisman contender, wide receiver DeVonta Smith, has caught 98 passes for 1,511 yards and 17 touchdowns. Alabama’s second-leading receiver, John Metchie III, has more catches (44), receiving yards (782) and touchdowns (six) than Notre Dame’s leader in each category.

Overlooked for much of the regular season, running back Najee Harris ran for 178 yards, had 67 receiving yards and accounted for five touchdowns against the Gators.

The wealth of options on this side of the ball presents problems for Notre Dame, which had tremendous difficulty stopping a similarly balanced offense against Clemson. Even with Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne in the backfield, Clemson’s weapons don’t match up with Alabama’s skill talent.

But the Crimson Tide defense gives Notre Dame a chance. After several weeks of resembling a vintage Nick Saban-era defense — the Tide held six straight opponents to 17 or fewer points — Alabama gave up 462 yards against Florida, the fourth time this season an opponent has eclipsed the 400-yard mark. Three of those opponents rank among the nation’s best teams: Texas A&M, Georgia and the Gators.

While the offense bottomed out against Clemson, Notre Dame had showed incredible balance for most of the regular season and taken an obvious step forward since the end of October. The Irish ran for at least 199 yards and threw for at least 199 yards in each of the five games leading into the ACC championship.

The key on offense will be to develop an effective running game, which was nonexistent against the Tigers. Keeping Alabama’s defense honest against the run could open up passing lanes for quarterback Ian Book, who has thrown just two interceptions across 314 attempts. By avoiding turnovers, controlling the clock and keeping pace with Alabama’s offense, the Irish would have a shot at pulling off a significant upset.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, both Heisman finalists, will be a challenge Friday for Notre Dame’s defense.