No. 4 Notre Dame vs. No. 1 Alabama: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

Notre Dame Clemson
ACC Media

WHO? No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1, 9-1 ACC) vs. No. 1 Alabama (11-0).

WHAT? The College Football Playoff semifinal, a rematch of the 2012 national championship game, a chance to finally change the (somewhat irrational) widespread perception of the Irish program.

Notre Dame thought it had flipped that script with its double-overtime 47-40 win against then-No. 1 Clemson in November, and that win inarguably pushed the Irish into the Playoff, but the 34-10 loss to the Tigers two weeks ago set back the proverbial plot by a few chapters.

WHEN? 4 ET on ESPN, with kickoff expected at about 4:20. Not to belabor this point too much, because the Rose Bowl’s shift is old news by now, so old even this space has finally moved on from its glib “Thorn Bowl” nickname, but any discussion of when the Rose Bowl kicks off is usually quickly followed by an acknowledgment of what time the sun will set. Watching the sun drop below the San Gabriel Mountains is one of the iconic images of college football and a New Year’s Day staple. In Pasadena, Calif., the sun will set at 7:54 ET, just as this scheduled kick should be concluding.

Instead, there will be no sunset at the Rose Bowl …

WHERE? Because AT&T Stadium is an indoor facility in Arlington, Texas, just north of Dallas. So even when the sun technically sets in Arlington at 6:34 ET, there will be no view of it from the game.

It took a $2 million payment from the Tournament of Roses to convince the city of Pasadena to temporarily allow the Rose Bowl moniker to apply to a game played in America’s most corporate of stadiums, a far cry from the undeniable beauty of the physical Rose Bowl.

This is the second time the Rose Bowl Game has been played away from the Rose Bowl, the other coming on New Year’s Day 1942 in Durham, N.C. out of concern the West Coast could still be subject to Japanese attack. This situation somehow both more (nearly 350,000 dead in the United States)  and less dire (the game could have been played in southern California), the Rose Bowl moves to Texas to allow for fans in the stands, which the state of California would not allow in any regard, not even for players’ families.

It is also the second time Notre Dame appears in the Rose Bowl, first doing so on New Year’s Day in 1925, a 27-10 win against Stanford, the first meeting between the now annual* rivals. (An asterisk because, well, ya know.) That trip to Pasadena, a result of Knute Rockne’s earliest barnstorming schedules — the Irish traveling party largely stuck to the Midwest up until 1923, various games against Army notwithstanding — sparked a University want to travel to California most seasons. It is by no coincidence the USC rivalry then began in 1926, only pausing for World War II and now a global pandemic.

WHY? Does this need to be asked for a Playoff semifinal? How was it answered the last time Notre Dame traveled to Texas to face one of the two current dynasties? What was said two years ago applies now, with a few updates to calendar counts …

“Never has a question felt so unnecessary. A win would be the biggest for Notre Dame since at least 1993 (beating Florida State) and probably 1988. It would put the Irish in the national championship game for the second time in [eight] years and render unnecessary any and all arguments about whether last year’s [Camping World] Bowl victory counted as a ‘big’ bowl game triumph.

“For [Alabama], a victory would put the [Tide] in [its fifth] title game in the last [six] years.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As of Friday’s earliest hours, Alabama is favored by 19 points with a combined points total over/under of 65.5, suggesting a 42-23 result. That spread never quite reached a full three touchdowns these last two weeks, but it hovered at 20 and 20.5 points for the bulk of the stretch.

Looking across the six years of the Playoff, such a large spread is appropriate. In every year, at least one of the semifinals was settled by three scores or more. The average margin of victory in the 12 semifinals is 21.25 points. If Notre Dame is indeed blown out this afternoon, it will fit with the general trend of the Playoff more than reflect poorly on the Irish.

“It goes to who is playing well at the time,” head coach Brian Kelly said this week in attempting to explain the frequency of those routs. “They’re all elite teams because they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. If a team that is really, really good gets on a roll and is playing well and executing at a high level, it’s really difficult to stop these teams because they, all of us, have the ability to really play at a high, high level.”

Kelly did not point out, nor would one expect him to just before facing the Tide, six of the eight three-possession Playoff semifinal trouncings were doled out by either Alabama or Clemson, playing at the highest, highest levels.

MATCHUP OF THE GAME: To counteract that 19-point spread, Notre Dame will need to slow down an offense averaging nearly 50 points per game, simply because it is illogical to think the Irish might score that many against Nick Saban. The difference between Notre Dame now and in 2018 or 2012 is the Irish have multiple defenders capable of hanging with the Tide.

Both sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton and consensus first-team All-American linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah would start for Alabama. They are the caliber of players Notre Dame has long needed to compete at this level.

“I’m just looking forward to getting a chance to go against someone like that,” Alabama quarterback and Heisman finalist Mac Jones said of Hamilton. “It’s almost like an Ed Reed-type person where you have to find him every play. You’ve got to know where he is, because he can really ruin a play for you if you’re not finding that player.”

Considering Jones spoke that highly of Hamilton — there is no praise higher for a safety than a comparison to Reed — his calling Owusu-Koramoah the “pivotal piece in the defense” resonates even louder.

The Irish do not have a fleet of Tide-quality defenders, but in those two, defensive coordinator Clark Lea might be able to stress Jones enough, particularly via center Chris Owens, stepping in for his first start of the season after Landon Dickeson suffered a knee injury late in the SEC title game.

In Notre Dame’s ACC title game loss to Clemson, the Tigers put together plenty of defensive film for Alabama to study and copy: how to hem in Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book, how to disrupt Notre Dame’s preferred blocking schemes, how to limit what were once default third-down conversions. They also offered Lea something to study as they harassed Notre Dame center Josh Lugg, playing in place of injured starter Jarrett Patterson.

Clemson linebacker James Skalski, who missed the November classic, repeatedly found holes to blitz through the middle. If the Irish apply similar pressure to Owens and thus Jones, be it via Hamilton or Owusu-Koramoah, they may force a needed mistake or two.

BACK TO A PREDICTION: But Notre Dame may need more than a mistake or two. Even the Tide’s two toughest opponents could not slow this prolific offense which may be operating at a historically unprecedented rate by some measures.

Available yards is the total yardage possible if scoring a touchdown on every possession, and the percentage of available yards gained is intended to show the efficiency of an offense both in establishing and finishing drives. Alabama gained 58.4 percent of its available yards against Georgia and 77.3 percent against Florida. To try to put that into Irish context, when they embarrassed South Florida, 52-0, they gained 75.4 percent of their available yards. The 45-3 win at Pittsburgh included 53.1 percent, and the 31-17 humbling of North Carolina featured 52.5 percent.

None of those Notre Dame marks were poor. Those were its most dominant performances this season, but they all fell short of what the Tide did against the No. 1 defense in the country, by SP+ measurements.

Alabama will find the end zone in AT&T Stadium, and it will find it repeatedly. The highest Irish scoring total of the season might not be enough to keep up.

Alabama 49, Notre Dame 24.
(9-2 straight up, 5-6 against the spread, 5-6 over/under)

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