Published January 02, 2013
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – If you can't beat them, join them. If you can't join them, at the very least, emulate them.
The SEC has won each of the last six national titles, so clearly the conference is doing something right.
Alabama takes aim at its third national crown in the last four years and once again Nick Saban's philosophy has been physical lines on both sides of the football, a strong ground game and dominant defensive play.
The Crimson Tide will square off against Notre Dame on Jan. 7 with the national title up for grabs. The betting lines have Alabama as a prohibitive favorite and it would be hard to find fault in that logic, considering the way Alabama plays the game, the veteran leadership that has been in this position before and a coach that simply knows how to win big games.
Still, Brian Kelly's Irish aren't just another run of the mill program that lucked into a spot in the BCS National Championship Game. Notre Dame has earned its spot, playing a brand of football all too familiar to the SEC elite.
It starts on the line of scrimmage. Across the board, Notre Dame has won the majority of the battles up front.
Offensively, the numbers speak for themselves. The offensive line paves the way for a running attack that averages over 200 yards per game and amassed 22 rushing scores this season. The ground game is as effective as it is thanks to fresh legs. The Irish rely on a stable of quality backs, led by Theo Riddick (880 yards, 4.9 ypc, 5 TDs), Cierre Wood (740 yards, 6.7 ypc, 4 TDs) and George Atkinson III (361 yards, 7.1 ypc, 5 TDs). Quarterback Everett Golson may just be a freshman, but the youngster has grown up over the course of the 2012 season thanks in large part to the efforts of his offensive line. While throwing the football is option number two in South Bend, pass protection is still a strength, with the line yielding only 16 sacks this season. It is a big, nasty offensive front that likes to get after defenders and win each and every individual battle.
The defensive numbers have been even more impressive. The Irish defense as a whole has given up just 10 touchdowns this season and leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 ppg). While three-time All-American Manti Te'o is the centerpiece of the unit and for good reason, the play up front has been almost as important.
The team has three big bodies that all have flourished under Kelly and perfected their roles.
Sophomore end Stephon Tuitt has received the most attention on the defensive side outside of Te'o and has molded himself into a legitimate NFL caliber downlinemen in just one season as a starter. The 6-foot-6, 304-pound sophomore was named a First-Team All-American, posting 42 total tackles, with 13.0 TFLs and a team-high 12.0 sacks this season.
Kelly credits Tuitt for working hard to be a force on every down.
"Stephon's process in terms developing into the player that he is today has been one where he had to be unselfish first and foremost," said the Irish head coach. "He had to be a guy that was committed to being solid against the run and not just, I want to be an edge player.
"He's seen, by the number sacks that he has this year, that he can be both. So the transformation for Stephon Tuitt for us is that he's embraced his role of being a guy that will play the four technique and be a two gapper were against the run and also be able to rush the passer and do both.
"That's the transformation that we've seen that we're most pleased with as relates it Stephon. And he's only going to continue to get better as we move forward. This is really, truly his first full year of playing the game."
Veteran Kapron Lewis-Moore (6-4, 306) comes off the other edge and has been highly successful as well (39 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 6.0 sacks). The job of winning one-on-one battles is made possible by mammoth defensive tackle Louis Nix III (6-3, 326). The junior nose tackle (45 tackles, 5.5 TFLs) is an anchor against the run, taking on multiple blockers on most plays, freeing up the rest of the defense to get to the ball carrier.
That is something that the Irish thrive at, led by Te'o (103 tackles, seven INTs). Players like linebacker Prince Shembo (48 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks), safety Zeke Motta (61 tackles) and cornerback Bennett Jackson (61 tackles, four INTs) have all hit their stride in 2012, feeding off the frenzied play off Te'o and the defensive line.
It remains to be seen if Notre Dame can impose its will on an Alabama squad that has proved time and time again that it can do that very thing on the biggest of stages.
Following a blueprint set forth by the Crimson Tide themselves though, certainly gives the Irish more than a fighting chance.