I’m not the first to make this comparison, but when I look at the 2012 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, I see very clearly … the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes.
That ’02 Buckeyes team wasn’t the flashiest bunch in the land. Their offense didn’t light up the scoreboard, they weren’t loaded with future NFL talent and, on more than one occasion, they found themselves pushed to the very brink of defeat—against the likes of Purdue and Cincinnati, no less.
That team wasn’t a lot of things. It wasn’t exciting. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fashionable.
But it was hugely confident. It was extremely disciplined. It was extremely well-coached. And, most importantly, it was really, really, really hard to beat, because when you played the Buckeyes, you found out real quick that it was going to be really, really, really hard to score.
In the end, of course, that ugly duckling of a Buckeye team walked off with the national championship, stunning a Miami team that had stormed its way through its schedule and entered the game fully confident that it would blow the Buckeyes out of the water.
Which brings us back to Notre Dame-Alabama, our matchup for the 2012-2013 BCS National Championship Game.
Yes, the oddsmakers have made Alabama big favorites. And yes, given Nick Saban’s ridiculously successful track record so far in Tuscaloosa—not to mention the struggles of “Northern” teams against SEC teams—it’s hardly a great leap to assume that the Tide will win, and win comfortably, against this Irish team.
HOW NOTRE DAME CAN WIN: It’s pretty simple: Defense, defense, defense … and timely offense. Though the Irish offense clearly improved over the course of the season, this was a team that was carried by its defense. Manti Te’o and gang held more than a few quality offenses in check—Oklahoma only managed to score 13, USC did the same, and neither Michigan nor Michigan State could even manage to post 7—so they’re clearly capable of doing the same against Alabama, which does boast a fantastic offensive line and a dangerous running attack, but isn’t exactly 2004 USC, either. If the defense can hold up their end of the bargain, it will be left to quarterback Everett Golson to handle the rest; he doesn’t need to win the game, necessarily, but he can’t afford to get rattled in the face of Nick Saban’s relentless scheme. If Golson can keep his head for a quarter or two, and if the Irish can head into halftime at least within striking defense, anything is possible. Again, this team is better than they’ve been given credit for. They can win this.
HOW ALABAMA CAN WIN: By being Alabama. Though most of the attention to Alabama over the years has been paid to their defense—and justifiably so, it must be said—I have the sense that if the Tide are going to claim another national title here, they’ll have do to so on the backs of their offense. Against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, the Tide offense looked aimless for a while, but when they committed early in the third quarter to turn the game over to their offensive line—probably the finest line in the nation—everything changed. Behind the crushing blocking of Barrett Jones and crew, tailbacks Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon ran roughshod over a helpless Georgia defense. If the Tide wants to break Notre Dame, and break then early, they’d be wise to employ the same strategy—but do so from the opening kick. Notre Dame’s defense is indeed a great one, but I’m not sure they’ll have faced an offensive line—or a tailback tandem—quite like this all season.
PREDICTION: As you could probably tell from my intro up top, I really do believe that Notre Dame has a shot to win this. The Ohio State comparison may be clumsy, but I believe there’s a good bit of truth to it—not only with respect to both teams’ defensive prowess, but also the fact that both entered their national title showdown with something to prove. Nobody believed in the Buckeyes. Few believe in Notre Dame. In that sense, the Irish are a dangerous opponent—and I have complete faith that they’ll keep this one close. In the end, though, I just can’t pick against Saban. He’s created one of the great dynasties in the history of the sport, and a win here would place him perhaps among the Top 5 or even Top 3 coaches of all time. The guy is relentless, and his teams are, too. Another national title for the Tide seems to be on the way. ALABAMA 23, NOTRE DAME 17