Two of the most storied programs in NCAA history will collide at Sun Life Stadium on Monday night, as the Alabama Crimson Tide and Notre Dame Fighting Irish square off with the BCS National Championship on the line.
It is a familiar setting for Nick Saban and his squad, as Alabama will be playing for its third national title in the last four years, hoping to become the first team since Nebraska in the early 1990s to complete that feat.
The defending national champions were almost left on the outside looking in on this game, as the team opened the season with nine straight wins, before suffering what looked like a devastating loss late in November to Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa (29-24). However, teams in front of the Crimson Tide faltered down the stretch, while Alabama took care of its business the rest of the way, including knocking off a tough Georgia squad in the SEC Championship Game (32-28) in what amounted to a BCS semifinal, with the winner moving into the national title game.
Alabama's postseason resume is obviously lengthy, as the team has captured 14 national championships in all (10 consensus), including last year's 21-0 shutout of LSU. This is Alabama's third appearance in the BCS Title Game. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in all-time bowl appearances (59) and bowl victories (33). This marks the ninth straight season the team has earned a bowl bid.
A two-time National Coach of the Year, Brian Kelly has once again transformed a program. After leading Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season in his third year at the helm in 2009, he has done it again, this time in South Bend, where Notre Dame makes its return to the biggest stage. The Fighting Irish sit atop the national polls heading into the championship game at a flawless 12-0, which includes victories over four top-25 foes. The Irish are the first team in the BCS era to play for a national championship after starting the season unranked. BYU was the last team to claim a national title after starting the season unranked (1984).
Notre Dame began the 2012 season with a thorough drubbing of Navy in Ireland (50-10). Victories over Michigan State, Michigan, Miami-Florida and Oklahoma showcased Notre Dame's defensive prowess along the way. It wasn't always easy though, as the Irish needed an overtime period to get past Stanford (20-13) and three extra sessions to edge out Pittsburgh (29-26). However, victories over Boston College (21-6), Wake Forest (38-0) and USC (22-13) finished off an unbeaten campaign and secured a spot atop the national polls and an invite to the team's first-ever BCS Championship Game.
Notre Dame has 11 national titles to its credit, although the last one came back in 1988. The Irish sit with a 15-16 all-time bowl record, as the postseason has not been kind to the team since the mid-90s. Notre Dame experienced a nine-game losing streak in bowls from 1994-2006, but finally ended the skein with back-to-back wins over Hawaii (2008) and Miami-Florida (2010). Last season, the Irish dropped an 18-14 decision to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Alabama and Notre Dame have met six previous times, with Notre Dame claiming victory in five of those games. Still, these teams haven't met since 1987. The most famous clash took place in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, when third-ranked Notre Dame edged out top-ranked Alabama, 24-23 in what was called the "Game of the Century."
Nick Saban acknowledged how special this game is.
"We are very excited about coming to South Florida and I congratulate Notre Dame and Coach Kelly and his players on an undefeated season and their number one ranking," said Saban. "They are a fantastic team and it's always a special occasion to play against Notre Dame, and especially for the national championship."
Saban has certainly done a remarkable job in Tuscaloosa, as it seems like he has a never-ending supply of All-Americans coming in and out the program, providing the team with an opportunity to win the SEC and national championship annually. This season is obviously no different, All-Americans pepper the lineup on both sides of the ball.
The Alabama offense flourished this season thanks to steady play under center, a dominant offensive line and a couple of great tailbacks. Overall, Alabama finished up averaging 38.5 ppg, while gaining over 200 yards both on the ground (224.6 ypg) and through the air (214.5 ypg). In addition, the team was able to finish as the top red-zone offense in the nation, scoring 89 percent of the time, including touchdowns in 41-of-57 opportunities.
Of the team's six All-Americans this year, three reside along the offensive line in First-Teamers Chance Warmack (guard) and Barrett Jones (center), along with Second-Teamer D.J. Fluker (tackle). Jones, a two-time selection, also won the Rimington Award as the top pivot in the country.
That certainly had to make quarterback A.J. McCarron (Third-Team All-American) feel safe when dropping back, as the junior signal-caller completed a steady 66.8 percent of his passes, for 2,669 yards, with 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Freshman Amari Cooper emerged as a true game-breaker on the outside, leading the team in receptions (53), receiving yards (895) and TD catches (9).
The passing game was also aided by the strong running of both junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon. Both put up 1,000 yards or more on the ground, as Lacy finished with 1,182 yards on 6.4 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns, while Yeldon netted an even 1,000 yards on 6.5 yards per touch and 11 scores.
Defense has been the name of the game in Tuscaloosa under Saban and this season is no different, as Alabama ranked second nationally in points allowed (10.7 ppg), first in rush defense (79.8 ypg), fourth in pass defense (166.2 ypg) and first in total defense (246.0 ypg).
A pair of First-Team All-Americans reside on the defensive side of the ball in junior linebacker C.J. Mosley and junior cornerback Dee Milliner. Mosley, who has already indicated that he will return for his senior season, paced the team in tackles (99), with 7.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Fellow linebackers Trey DePriest (56 tackles) and Nico Johnson (54 stops) were a distant second and third on the team in tackles.
A talented secondary was led by Milliner (51 tackles, two INTs, one fumble recovery), but he is certainly not alone, as senior Robert Lester (42 tackles, four INTs) is an NFL-calibber defensive back as well.
The Irish have excelled this season and it probably isn't a coincidence that the team resembles an SEC squad in a number of areas. Notre Dame has run the table this season with dominant play along both lines, a steady diet of the run and aggressive defensive play.
Notre Dame hasn't put up gaudy scoring totals this year at 26.8 ppg, but the team has moved the ball well with a balanced attack, also averaging over 200 yards both rushing (202.5 ypg) and passing (218.8 ypg).
Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson has learned on the job and is a much move savvy signal-caller now than at the beginning on the season. Golson has completed 58.9 percent of his throws on the season, for 2,135 yards, with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, but his athleticism in the pocket allows him to extend plays and make something out of nothing.
Brian Kelly thinks play in the red zone is a key to this contest.
"Well, if you just look at the start of the year to the end of the year, it's been a progression for Everett, especially in those areas where you put points on the board," said Kelly. "So when you're trying to look at an A.J. McCarron who's an experienced player coming back versus Golson, you're going to give A.J., early in the season, obviously the edge because he's been there.
Everett obviously was learning along the season, and he's gotten better as we've gotten closer. So we think we've addressed those through just maturity and understanding."
Golson has also benefited from the play of Mackey Award winning tight end Tyler Eifert (44 receptions, 624 yards, four TDs) and wideout T.J. Jones (43 receptions, 559 yards, four TDs).
Still, it is the ground game that fuels the Irish attack. With no clear-cut workhorse in the backfield, the philosophy is fresh legs. The team boasts of a trio of quality ball carriers in Theo Riddick (880 yards, 4.9 ypc, five TDs), Cierre Wood (740 yards, 6.7 ypc, four TDs) and George Atkinson III (361 yards, 7.1 ypc, five TDs).
Where Notre Dame has really had its greatest success is on the defensive side of the football. The Irish rank first in the nation in points allowed (10.3 ppg) as well as red-zone defense, limiting foes to just eight touchdowns in 33 attempts this year.
The Irish also have star power on defense, led by unanimous All-American Manti Te'o in the middle. The senior linebacker saved his best for last, as Te'o was not only the Heisman runner-up, but became the most decorated player in NCAA history this season, by capturing the Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, Nagurski Award, Bednarik Award, Maxwell Award, Lott Trophy and the Walter Camp Player of the Year.
Te'o led the Irish with 103 total tackles and tied for third nationally in interceptions with seven. He certainly wasn't alone in making plays for Notre Dame, as sophomore end Stephon Tuitt picked up All-American honors as well, amassing 42 tackles and team-highs in both TFL (13.0) and sacks (12.0). Others in the front seven that play vital roles on this unit include fellow end Kapron Lewis-Moore (39 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks), nose tackle Louis Nix III (45 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and linebacker Prince Shembo (48 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks). The secondary is highlighted by cornerback Bennett Jackson (61 tackles, four INTs) and safety Zeke Motta (61 tackles, one fumble recovery).