Rose Bowl Preview: Does Notre Dame Have What It Takes to Keep Up With Alabama?

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DALLAS — The sunset was always the thing, holding college football in thrall. The Rose Bowl had to be played at a certain time, every year, so that America could be transfixed by the warm sun rays as they bathed idyllic Pasadena in golden light. Then the orb slipped behind the San Gabriel Mountains and the game reached its fourth-quarter climax.

Welp. Here in 2020, the sun will set over the strip malls on the Tom Landry Expressway in Arlington, Texas, where the Rose Bowl has been relocated to AT&T Stadium. Nobody will see it, for two reasons: the forecast is for clouds, and the game will be indoors. So much for idyllic.

But at least there is a College Football Playoff semifinal being played. How long it holds our collective interest is another matter, one that rests heavily on the skill and will of heavy underdog Notre Dame as it takes on undefeated, No. 1 Alabama.

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Storyline you're already tired of

Whether Notre Dame can compete. The Fighting Irish were blasted by Clemson in their last game, reinforcing the years-old doubts about whether the program is equipped to stand toe-to-toe with the biggest and best. “I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the (big) games,” said coach Brian Kelly Monday, but the reason is obvious: There is a difference between being in the games and having a chance to win the games.

The College Football Playoff Era has been rife with semifinal blowouts, and Alabama is favored by 20 points in this one, by far the biggest point spread in the seven-year history of the playoff. “I can’t wait to watch them play,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’re going to perform at a high level. They’re going to need to.” There is pressure on Notre Dame—not so much to win, but to show up and make a game of it against the No. 1 Crimson Tide.

Key matchup to watch

Notre Dame’s defense—particularly its secondary—against the big-play capability of Alabama’s skill players. Clemson averaged 8.2 yards per play, most against the Irish in six years, and ripped the top off the Irish defense for scoring plays of 33, 34, 44 and 67 yards. Well, the Crimson Tide’s offense is even more explosive, which furthers the imperative for Clark Lea’s defense to make Alabama earn every yard. Safety Kyle Hamilton, the best player in Notre Dame’s secondary, was banged up during that game. He’ll need to be 100%, and the rest of the Irish defensive backs have to step up and play better against a volcanic Alabama passing attack.

Underrated X-factor

Both teams have questions at center. And as overlooked as that position often is, that’s a scary place to have questions. One bad snap can ruin a season at this point.

Alabama lost a star and team captain at that position in Landon Dickerson, who was injured in the SEC championship game win over Florida. He’ll be replaced by fifth-year senior Chris Owens, who has played at every position on the offensive line during his college career. “He’s kind of been a jack-of-all-trades for us,” Nick Saban said this week. Dickerson was a physical force in the running game; will Owens be capable of moving Notre Dame linemen and opening holes for Najee Harris?

Notre Dame lost starter Jarrett Patterson in mid-November and has tried a couple of different options since—backup Zeke Correll started against North Carolina, then utility man Josh Lugg took over against Syracuse and Clemson. Kelly said Thursday that it will be a game-time decision on who starts against Alabama. Offensive line play figures to be vital for the Irish, who will hope to control the ball and eat the clock, keeping the Tide’s offense off the field as much as possible.

Alabama wins if it...

Doesn’t screw it up—no flurry of turnovers, no special teams gaffes, limit penalties, avoid coverage busts. The Tide are the better team. If they execute offensively as they have all season, Notre Dame cannot keep up. This has not been a mistake-prone unit, with just 11 turnovers—it would take some uncharacteristic sloppiness to slow down Mac Jones & Co. Their defense can be susceptible to big plays (Florida had two touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in the SEC title game) but also can create big plays (21 takeaways on the year). The Irish aren’t winning this without an assist from Alabama. Play buttoned-up football and this shouldn’t be close.

Notre Dame wins if it...

The basic building blocks of most major football upsets: win the turnover margin; get an early lead; make clutch plays; shrewd in-game coaching decisions; get a little lucky. All those things have to fall into place for Notre Dame. Additionally, finishing drives will be key—which means quarterback Ian Book will have to come through on third downs. Kicking field goals isn’t going to beat Alabama. Expect to see Kelly operating with peak aggressiveness when making fourth-down decisions and potentially pulling out fake kicks or trick plays.

What we think happens

Alabama has been the most consistent team in the country all season, and it’s hard to see that wavering now. To its advantage, there have been fewer distractions than normal. This has not been a year with impending staff changes—Saban does not appear to be losing a coordinator to a head-coaching job elsewhere, at least not yet. And while there are several players who will face stay-or-go professional decisions, many of ‘Bama’s best players are seniors (DeVonta Smith, Harris, Alex Leatherwood, Dickerson, Dylan Moses) and have known their status all along. The Tide will roll into its fifth College Football Playoff championship game.

Alabama 45, Notre Dame 21

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