Can Notre Dame compete with Alabama? Opposing coaches, scouts warn it may get ugly

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

There’s an old writing tenet that has been passed through the generations — tension drives narratives. To remain compelling, stories need conflict, drama or elements of the unknown to keep the reader captured.

When attempting to analyze No. 4 Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff matchup against No. 1 Alabama, the narrative tension comes with the search for tension.

Yahoo Sports spoke to 10 coaches and scouts who’ve either played or studied Notre Dame and Alabama this year. Let’s just say they didn’t offer a lot of analysis that led to organic opportunity to create narrative tension.

“Alabama is going to kill them,” said a veteran assistant. “I’m just being honest.”

“Alabama is unstoppable on offense,” said a head coach. “Did you see the pass concepts they ran in the SEC title game? They knew what Florida was doing and were running routes to mess with them.”

Optimism came in this form: “I don’t think Notre Dame will get obliterated,” said another assistant. “I see it being like 42-21.”

Why such a mismatch? Here’s how coaches predict the game — and seemingly inevitable result — will unfold. The best tension may be the search for it.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly leads the team out of the tunnel for an NCAA college football game against Clemson on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. (Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly leads the team out of the tunnel for an NCAA college football game against Clemson on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in South Bend, Ind. (Matt Cashore/Pool Photo via AP)

1) What can Notre Dame do to slow Alabama?

The Crimson Tide have the country’s No. 2 scoring offense, and that’s been without star receiver Jaylen Waddle since Oct. 24 when he fractured his ankle.

Notre Dame has two of the country’s elite defensive players — Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (LB) and Kyle Hamilton (safety). From there, the Irish defense has lived on being solid but unspectacular. The corners are considered average and safety Shaun Crawford will be a target for Alabama to isolate.

“Clark Lea rarely puts his guys in true one-on-one situations in the backend,” said an opposing coach. “He does everything he can not to put guys in one-on-one. Teams have to move methodically down the field. The defensive structure is based off of once every seven snaps he’s going to pressure. If he hits it’s second-and-15 and they can get off the field.”

That means the biggest key to slowing Alabama’s offense — including home-run threats DeVonta Smith (Heisman finalist) and Najee Harris — is going to be sure tackling. (Boring, right?)

“They have to make tackles in space,” said another assistant. “They have to tackle No. 6 [Smith]. They have to tackle Najee for 60 minutes. It was painful watching our guys try and tackle these guys. Their shoulders were hanging down to their knees when they’d get up off the ground.”

2) What does Notre Dame need from Ian Book?

Notre Dame’s best chance to score against Alabama comes with the multiple skill set of senior quarterback Ian Book. While Book is one of the program’s best winners — he’s 30-4 as a starter — there remain limitations.

Clemson left a blueprint to slow down Book in the ACC title game. They put up what one opposing assistant called a “cage” around Book by the defensive linemen staying in their rush lanes.

Another assistant predicted the game plan against Notre Dame this way: “The biggest thing is to compress the pocket so [Book] cannot see and limit his scrambling ability. If he can scramble, they’ll score 25 or 30. If he can’t, they’ll score 10.”

Book ran for 67 yards in Notre Dame’s upset of Clemson in the regular season, which includes two sacks for minus-eight yards. In the ACC title game, Book had 10 rushes for minus-35 yards, which included six sacks for minus-39. The blueprint is there for Alabama to stay disciplined and make Book one-dimensional to operate from the pocket.

3) Can Notre Dame find a spark?

Alabama’s defense has shown vulnerability, at least by Nick Saban’s standards. Some of that can be linked to the offense scoring so much that it forces the Tide defense into extra possessions. They still enter the bowl season as the SEC’s No. 1 scoring defense (19.5 ppg), but have proven vulnerable to Ole Miss’ tempo and Florida’s skill in giving up 48 points to the Rebels and 46 to the Gators.

But here’s the difference with Notre Dame and those teams. The Irish’s strength is in the middle of the field — a high-end offensive line and the country’s best group of tight ends. They don’t use tempo the way Ole Miss does and don’t have anyone as dynamic as Florida tight end Kyle Pitts or star receiver Kadarius Toney. Notre Dame freshman tight end Michael Mayer may be college football’s next version of Pitts, but he’s not there yet.

Notre Dame’s top receivers — Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek — don’t offer the same twitch as Toney. It’s going to be hard to score with Alabama if Notre Dame relies on long drives, riding their offensive line and hoping Book’s legs and tailbacks Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree can grind the clock and shorten the game.

Notre Dame would need some kind of spark to stretch the field vertically, the way that recent elite teams — 2018 Clemson, 2019 LSU and 2020 Alabama — all have been able to do. Notre Dame winning this game in the box seems like long odds.

“They don’t have any receiver who is worth a darn in terms of someone who brings some type of attention elsewhere,” said an opposing coach. “In order to beat Alabama, you need to have unbelievable quarterback play, like Johnny Manziel winning the Heisman or Deshaun Watson or Joe Burrow having the game of his life. Notre Dame doesn’t have the dudes to create that.”

Notre Dame QB Ian Book throws a pass against Clemson during the ACC title game on Dec. 19. (AP)
Notre Dame QB Ian Book throws a pass against Clemson during the ACC title game on Dec. 19. (AP)

4) Where can Notre Dame find an edge?

The unfortunate part for the Irish is that the place all the opposing coaches and scouts point to as Alabama’s distinct weakness on defense is the safety position. But as we discussed, Notre Dame may not have the personnel to exploit mismatches over the top.

This isn’t a typical marauding Saban defense. One NFL scout said the only potential first-rounders in the upcoming draft are junior corner Patrick Surtain and redshirt sophomore end Christian Barmore. Poor Alabama, just two potential first-rounders on defense this year.

One scout summed up Alabama’s defensive talent and relative struggles this way. “The safeties are limited and they give up big plays. Up front it’s good, but not as good as it has been for them. This isn’t a dominant Bama front seven.”

Can Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees find a way to leverage any advantage Notre Dame has up front and eventually exploit Alabama’s safeties? That appears to be the best formula for the Irish to have a chance.

5) Can Clark Lea find a brilliant disguise?

One of the fun aspects of these playoff games is that it allows us to really to get to know the coordinators, who are often the future of football. Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian won the Broyles Award for the country’s top assistant coach.

Sarkisian is a familiar name, as he’s a former Pete Carroll assistant from USC’s glory days and was also the head coach at Washington and USC. He may be the best offensive coordinator Saban has had, and this relentless, nuanced and diverse offense has been a rollicking outfit each week.

Lea is the next coach at Vanderbilt, and he’s faced with the biggest challenge of his Notre Dame career in his final game. Lea is one of the game’s bright young minds, and those coaches familiar with him say that his best chance will come with attempting to confuse Alabama quarterback Mac Jones pre-snap.

“Alabama can never know what the coverage is,” said an assistant. “Clark does a great job of disguising the coverage. If the quarterback knows what the coverage is pre-snap, Alabama is going to be as good as everyone says they are. [Jones] will know who the shot is going to. He’s really good at that.”

Notre Dame’s best chance comes down to confusing Jones early, knocking him out of rhythm and keeping the ball away for long spells. That’s the best way for the game nearly everyone predicts to be a blowout to deliver some tension.

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