NOTRE DAME VS. ALABAMA

WHO WILL WIN? OUR ANALYTICS EXPERT, AN ENGINEERING PH.D. FROM STANFORD AND THE BRAINS BEHIND THEPOWERRANK.COM, WENT INSIDE THE TENDENCIES OF BOTH CONTENDERS THIS SEASON TO CREATE A SIMULATION THAT MAY BE CLOSER TO REALITY THAN REALITY ITSELF
December 31, 2012

1st QUARTER

ALABAMA 7

NOTRE DAME 6

Note: This analysis is based on every play in a game with at least one FBS team, except for the one played between Louisiana-Monroe and Florida International, for which no stats were available. Sacks count as pass attempts instead of runs, unlike the tabulations used for the official NCAA stats. Plays with intentional incomplete passes to stop the clock and kneel-downs are excluded.

Notre Dame gets the first possession and comes out throwing, often on first down. Sophomore quarterback Everett Golson and the Fighting Irish have passed on 52.1% of their first-down plays in the first quarter this year, quite a bit more than their 44.3% frequency on first down all year. Attacking Alabama's 12th-ranked pass defense, Notre Dame moves the ball effectively; the Irish have averaged 8.3 yards per pass in the first quarter. Two drives, however, stall against Alabama's second-ranked total defense, and Notre Dame must settle for field goals both times.

Alabama's offense has tended to run on first down in the first quarter (57.4% of the time), but the Crimson Tide has been remarkably effective when throwing early. Junior quarterback AJ McCarron (left) has racked up 11.0 yards per pass attempt on first downs in the first quarter, much higher than his 8.1 game average. But the Crimson Tide has averaged only 5.0 yards running on first-quarter first downs, well below its 6.2 game average. Opposing teams often have stacked the box against Alabama on first down to stop the run. Tide coach Nick Saban, given 37 days to prepare for this game, adjusts, and Alabama scores a TD on a drive in which it exclusively throws on first down.

BY THE NUMBERS

8.7 Yards Alabama has averaged per pass in the first quarter this season, compared with 8.1 over an entire game.

8.3 Yards Notre Dame has averaged per pass in the first quarter, compared with 7.0 overall.

44.7 Percentage of plays in the first quarter on which Alabama has attempted a pass, compared with 39.3% for the entire game.

49.0 Percentage of plays on which Notre Dame has passed in the first quarter, compared with 44.3% overall.

0.0 Yards difference in average gain per play between Notre Dame (7.3) and Alabama (7.3) in the first quarter.

ALABAMA'S OFFENSE HAS TENDED TO RUN ON FIRST DOWN IN THE FIRST QUARTER OF ITS GAMES THIS SEASON, BUT THE CRIMSON TIDE HAS BEEN REMARKABLY EFFECTIVE WHEN THROWING EARLY.

2nd QUARTER

ALABAMA 20

NOTRE DAME 6

Alabama's ground game picks up in the second quarter. With the backfield double threat of Eddie Lacy (left) and T.J. Yeldon behind an offensive line that excels at run blocking, the Tide has gained 6.2 yards per carry this season, fourth best in the nation. It faces a Notre Dame rush defense that has allowed 4.3 yards per carry; the Irish's rank of 16th in the nation in this category is surprisingly mediocre for a defense that is known for its front seven. Though Notre Dame has allowed only two rushing touchdowns all year, it has not seen the likes of Tide offensive linemen Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack & Co. After a long drive Lacy easily scores to put Alabama up 14--6.

The Tide adds two field goals in the second quarter and kicks off three times, its coverage team pinning Notre Dame deep in Irish territory each time. After kickoffs from the 35-yard line, Notre Dame has started at the 24.9 yard line on average this season, 87th in the nation. Burdened with poor field position against Alabama, the Irish's offense sputters. Notre Dame tries to run the ball only to be stuffed by the Tide's top-ranked rush defense. Nosetackle Jesse Williams is a one-man wrecking crew in the middle.

BY THE NUMBERS

7.1 Yards gained per rushing attempt in the second quarter by Alabama this season.

4.6 Yards gained per rushing attempt in the second quarter by Notre Dame this season.

51.8 Percentage of all plays in the second quarter of games in 2012 on which Notre Dame has attempted a pass.

52.9 Percentage of plays in the second quarter on which Alabama has run the ball.

6.7 Yards gained per pass attempt by Notre Dame in the second quarter this season.

8.2 Yards gained per pass attempt by Alabama in the second quarter.

THOUGH NOTRE DAME HAS ALLOWED ONLY TWO RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS ALL YEAR, THE FIGHTING IRISH HAVE NOT SEEN THE LIKES OF TIDE OFFENSIVE LINEMEN BARRETT JONES, CHANCE WARMACK & CO.

3rd QUARTER

ALABAMA 20

NOTRE DAME 13

Alabama has run the ball 66.4% of the time when it's been up by two touchdowns or more (60.7% overall) this season, and it has rushed for 6.4 yards per attempt when up by that margin. In the third quarter against Notre Dame, 'Bama is able to eat up time with a long drive. The Tide, however, comes away empty when Lacy spins right into a huge hit from Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o (left) and fumbles the ball. Notre Dame recovers.

As the quarter progresses the Irish begin to find an offensive groove, mixing quick passes and misdirection runs that keep Alabama's defense off balance. Notre Dame faces two third-and-seven situations on the drive and convert both, one on a run by Cierre Wood and the other with a Golson scramble. This seems counterintuitive, but in 2012 FBS teams facing third-and-seven or more converted with running plays 21.8% of the time and succeeded only slightly more often when throwing (27.4%). Like many other teams were during the season, Alabama is caught off guard defensively when looking for a pass on third and long. Finally Golson finds tight end Tyler Eifert in the end zone to pull the Fighting Irish back into the game.

BY THE NUMBERS

59.0 Percentage of plays on which Notre Dame has run the ball in the third quarter of games in the 2012 season.

64.3 Percentage of plays on which Alabama has run in the third quarter.

6.5 Yards gained per play, passing and running, by Notre Dame in the third quarter, compared with an average of 6.2 overall.

6.1 Yards gained per play by Alabama in the third quarter, compared with an average of 7.0 overall.

0.4 Yards differential in average gain per carry in the third quarter between Notre Dame (6.4) and Alabama (6.0).

THE IRISH SUCCEED ON TWO THIRD-AND-SEVEN PLAYS ON THE GROUND. THIS SEEMS COUNTERINTUITIVE, BUT IN 2012, FBS TEAMS CONVERTED ON THIRD-AND-LONG NEARLY AS OFTEN BY RUNNING AS BY THROWING.

4th QUARTER

ALABAMA 23

NOTRE DAME 16

Leading by seven as the fourth quarter begins, Alabama mixes passing plays with a steady dose of Lacy and Yeldon (left). This reflects the team's yearlong tendencies: When the Tide has led by 10 points or less, it has thrown the ball 40.3% of the time. Sticking to this balanced approach, 'Bama eats up more than eight minutes on a long drive. The passes, however, play into the hands of Notre Dame's defense. The Irish front seven have gotten sacks on 7.5% of opponents' pass attempts this season, 22nd best in the nation. Surprisingly Alabama's offensive line has given up sacks on 7.1% of those plays, which ranks it 89th. Notre Dame sacks McCarron on third-and-10, forcing a field goal that puts the Tide up 23--13.

The Irish get the ball and begin their own drive. On third-and-eight Golson takes off. On the season he has converted 16 of 24 third-down runs, well over 50%. (By comparison McCarron has converted one of five.) Golson is successful again, and the Notre Dame drive continues into the red zone. But Golson runs out of magic. The drive stalls at the 10 with less than a minute left, and, needing two scores, coach Brian Kelly elects to kick a field goal. After notching the three points, the Irish are unable to recover the onside kick. Game over. Roll Tide.

BY THE NUMBERS

72.5 Percentage of plays on which Alabama has run the ball in the fourth quarter of games this season.

65.1 Percentage of plays on which Notre Dame has run the ball in the fourth quarter.

8.9 Yards gained per pass attempt by Alabama in the fourth quarter, compared with 8.1 overall.

6.2 Yards gained per pass attempt by Notre Dame in the fourth quarter, compared with 7.0 overall.

1.0 Yards differential in average gain per play, passing and running, between Alabama (6.6) and Notre Dame (5.6) in the fourth quarter of games this season.

THE IRISH FRONT SEVEN HAVE GOTTEN SACKS ON 7.5% OF OPPONENTS' PASS ATTEMPTS THIS SEASON. SURPRISINGLY, ALABAMA'S OFFENSIVE LINE HAS GIVEN UP SACKS ON 7.1% OF PASSING PLAYS.

PHOTOMATT CASHORE (NOTRE DAME HELMET), CHAD MATTHEW CARLSON (ALABAMA HELMET) PHOTOBILL FRAKES PHOTOSIMON BRUTY PHOTOJOHN BIEVER PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)