And In That Corner … No. 1 Alabama again between Notre Dame and a title

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Notre Dame fans may still have nightmares about a bulldozing version of Alabama, but this is not the same Tide as seen in 2012. Irish head coach Brian Kelly referred to this offense, which averages nearly 50 points per game, as a “buzzsaw” with good reason.

To discuss that buzzsaw and what Notre Dame will have to do to slow it, let’s turn to Michael Casagrande of the Alabama Media Group.

DF: I appreciate you taking some time for this, Michael. I know it is a busy week ending a busy season ending a busy year.

I am challenging myself to frame these questions with a touch of optimism for Irish fans, because there is a bit of resignation of defeat already regarding this semifinal, something I have not done much to counteract. But there is a reason they play the game, right?

Alabama presents as a brutal opponent. This offense is, to use Brian Kelly’s apt description, “a buzzsaw.” Does it have any weakness?

MC: It’s hard to spot something as a glaring or specific weakness, but the Tide has struggled at times in the third quarter. For whatever reason, the offense has come out of the halftime locker room a little sluggish. A few defenses have given it issues when dropping defensive backs deep and forcing Mac Jones to throw underneath. It’s easier said than done, but it has been successful at times.

Chris Owens steps in for stalwart two-year starting center Landon Dickerson, who suffered significant knee ligament damage late in the SEC title game. Clearly, Dickerson’s injury impacted the Tide roster on an emotional level, evidenced by the entire team finding its way to him on the medical cart to offer some consolation. But without him, how much of a drop-off is there to Owens at the fulcrum?

It could have a significant impact. Dickerson i’s among the more impactful centers I can remember at Alabama from a physical and emotional standpoint. He’s easily the most physically dominant center in the Saban era. Dickerson is an old-school hoss who would ragdoll defensive linemen, and he is also a well-liked and respected voice in the locker room, so that’s hard to ignore.

That said, Chris Owens is also a very popular player who has been a voice for the team during this difficult year. He might not be the same physical presence, but he is a veteran who knows this offense.

For much of the season, there has been vague analysis that Alabama’s rush defense can be exposed, even though it gave up only 107.6 yards per game. Was this valid at one point or simply the result of the outside world trying to find a hole in the Death Star?

There certainly have been issues at times with teams who run the ball well. The average is killed by teams who don’t even bother to run it like Mississippi State and Florida. Georgia had success early running the ball from a more traditional look while Ole Miss did so out of its modern approach. This isn’t the same dominant defensive front from the 2012 team that Notre Dame saw but it has had its moments. I’d say there’s room for Notre Dame to make some things happen in the running game.

A follow-up note from Douglas: The statistical impact of those Mississippi State and Florida games is a strong point. Remove those, and Alabama gave up 121.4 rushing yards per game, highlighted by Ole Miss’s 268 yards on 57 carries and Georgia’s 145 yards on 30 carries in back-to-back October weeks.

Twice this year, the Tide were exposed defensively, at least on paper. Giving up 48 points to Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss and 46 to Florida in the SEC title game stood out as something that would typically drive Nick Saban insane, although Alabama was never in genuine danger in either game. What did the Rebels and Gators do that Notre Dame might try to replicate?

I would say Alabama was in trouble in the second half of the Florida game and Ole Miss could have beaten the Tide if it had any kind of defense. Lane Kiffin knew all the right buttons to push in the Ole Miss game and the Gators had the receiving talent/tight end Kyle Pitts to drive any secondary mad.

Over the holiday weekend, I stopped by a friend’s backyard for a beer around a fire pit in 10-degree weather. An ND alum, he clearly invited me over for one reason: To ask what it would take for the Irish to pull off this three-touchdown upset. I dodged the question. How would you have responded?

Make Alabama’s offense one-dimensional and hit a few big plays on offense. The Crimson Tide has given up a few home runs, including in the Florida game. This defense is not invincible if you hit the right note.

We all know this is the biggest spread in Playoff history, with the Tide favored by 20. What is your prediction for this relocated Rose Bowl?

I’d say Alabama wins by two or three touchdowns after Notre Dame makes a game of it in the first half.