Alabama Then vs. Now: Notre Dame faces a new test

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No team better demonstrates the evolution of college football across the last decade than Alabama. Compare the Tide awaiting Notre Dame on New Year’s Day in the Thorn Bowl to the rendition the Irish faced in 2012 and the explosive shift in the sport is obvious on both sides of the ball. Alabama is a high-octane machine these days, rather than the bulldozer of eight years ago, and it allows opponents to operate more efficiently, as well.

“It’s the proliferation of talent on offense, certainly at the wide receiver positions, running back,” head coach Brian Kelly said of the Tide’s changes in the last eight years. “I would say certainly they are probably where they are and continue to evolve at the offensive line. I think their No. 2 and No. 3 running backs are as good as anybody in the country.

“From that standpoint, I would probably point toward great quarterback play — not good quarterback play but great quarterback play — and then the skill players, in particular the wide receivers that have really elevated the explosiveness of these Alabama offenses.”

No offense intended to AJ McCarron, but no one was describing his play as “great” back in 2012, even if his 30 touchdowns to three interceptions warranted more praise than he received at the time. While the Tide scored 38.7 points per game, it gained more yards on the ground than through the air. That was a physical approach rather than a speedy one.

That has changed.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame has become a more-realized version of itself. When Kelly saw Alabama in the BCS title game, he knew he needed to develop a more physical roster, and he very much has, but that did not necessarily adjust for the top-end shift in the sport.

“It’s a deeper roster, more physical on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said Sunday. “There were certainly some very talented players on that 2012 roster … but I think overall, the depth of this roster, the ability to make plays on both sides of the ball, and quite frankly, just the size and physicality on both the offensive and defensive line is probably the biggest departure from 2012.”

Looking at Alabama first …
Not all of the Tide’s offensive stats suggest a more explosive offense, simply because it has de-emphasized the run as much as it has. While Najee Harris may be a Heisman finalist, and deservedly so, Eddie Lacey and T.Y. Yeldon were a one-two punch in Alabama’s backfield that no team was equipped to even consider slowing.

But otherwise, the Tide are more explosive across the board, scoring 11 points more per game and gaining nearly a full yard more per play than in 2012.

Alabama 2012 2020
Yards per rush 5.59 5.04
Rushing yards/game 227.5 189.8
Passing yards/game 218.0 354.1
Yards per pass attempt 9.3 11.1
Yards per play 6.95 7.83

The Tide faced 0.5 fewer third downs per game this season than in 2012, despite running 5.4 more plays per game. Why? It is that much more explosive, gaining 30 percent more first downs this season (28.1 compared to 21.6).

“We’ve probably changed as the game has changed, playing a little different style on offense,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said Sunday. “We were more run the ball, play-action pass, NFL-type offense back in the 2012 days than we are right now.”

It has also cost the Tide on defense, though that is arguably a further reflection of the evolution of the game as opponents prioritize explosiveness and speed in 2020, as well. It remains one of the best defenses in the country, but compared to 2012’s, this version of Alabama pales. It is a matter of different eras, not a dropoff.

Alabama defense 2012 2020
Points per game 10.9 19.5
Yards per rush 2.43 3.17
Rushing yards/game 76.4 107.6
Passing yards/game 173.6 243.5
Yards per pass attempt 6.1 6.8
Yards per play 4.18 5.04

And again looking at the ratio of third downs to first downs, 2020 Alabama simply allows more explosiveness. Eight years ago, nearly every first down gained against the Tide necessitated a third down.

2012: 13.7 first downs allowed per game, 13.6 third downs forced.
2020 19.6 first downs allowed per game, 15.5 third downs forced.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame doubled down on what made it successful. To an extent, the Irish of 2020 look more like Alabama of 2012 than anything else.

To be clear, that is not a criticism. Notre Dame is 43-7 across the last four seasons, is one of only five teams to reach multiple Playoffs and has won at least 10 games in four straight years.

Notre Dame 2012 2020
Points per game 25.8 35.2
Yards per rush 4.87 5.13
Rushing yards/game 189.4 217.6
Passing yards/game 222.8 237.5
Yards per pass attempt 7.46 8.17
Yards per play 5.99 6.36

The Irish are slightly more explosive now, increasing their first downs per game by 12.5 percent while keeping third downs essentially constant, but that uptick is hardly on par with the game’s shift.

Genuinely, compare the 2012 Alabama offense against Notre Dame’s in 2020. Rushing yards per game and passing yards per game within shouting range of a 50/50 split, fewer than 10 yards per pass attempt, more than five yards per rush, six-some yards per play.

Neither looks anything like the 2020 Tide, with nearly twice as many passing yards per game as rushing, with 11.1 yards per pass attempt,  with barely five yards per rush, with nearly eight yards per play.

Facing that “buzzsaw” of an offense, the Irish will rely on a defense that may be better than 2012’s, particularly when considering the seismic shift in opposing offenses.

Notre Dame defense 2012 2020
Points per game 12.8 18.6
Yards per rush 3.47 3.70
Rushing yards/game 105.7 121.0
Passing yards/game 199.8 224.5
Yards per pass attempt 5.98 6.9
Yards per play 4.78 5.37

There is little reason to think Clark Lea’s defense will be able to shut down Alabama’s three Heisman candidates, but it will have a better chance than the last Irish unit to face the Tide would have, especially as the first down against third down ratio has remained rather constant across these two sample sets for Notre Dame’s defense (17.1-13.7 :: 16.8-13.0).

When Brian Kelly saw what Alabama did to the Irish in 2012, he vowed to become more like them. Now with a more experienced improviser at quarterback, with bigger and better offensive and defensive lines, Kelly succeeded in finding those answers.

But in the past eight years, Nick Saban and the Tide have changed the questions.