Those with a thirst for offense will find themselves disappointed when the nation’s top two scoring defenses meet for the BCS Championship Game on Monday in Miami. But if defense is your thing, the much-hyped title fight between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama will be a treat.
Led by a strong front seven, Alabama (12-1) paces the nation in rushing defense (average of 79.8 yards per game) and total offense (average of 246 ypg) while giving up an average of 10.7 points per game. Notre Dame (12-0) and star senior linebacker Manti Te’o lead the country in scoring defense, giving up an average of 10.3 points per game. Like the Crimson Tide, the Fighting Irish boast one of the nation’s top run-stopping units, limiting opponents to an average of 92.4 yards per contest.
Neither side is going to budge much in this battle of goliaths, so the game likely will come down to which team makes the most of its limited opportunities on offense. As a result, there’s a good chance the BCS title will be decided in the defensive red zone — where Notre Dame’s steadfast unit holds an ever-so-slight edge that will carry them to the program’s first national title since 1988.
Both Alabama and Notre Dame go into lockdown mode inside their own 20-yard lines, and the teams are first and tied for second, respectively, in the FBS in defensive-red-zone efficiency, with less than one percentage point separating the Tide from the Irish. But while Alabama has allowed 106 points in 27 red-zone opportunities, Notre Dame has only allowed 95 points on 33 such chances.
In fact, Brian Kelly’s Irish have been so adept at stonewalling teams and forcing kicks inside the 20 — and pretty much everywhere else — they’ve only allowed eight red-zone TDs all year, the best mark in the nation. (Of course, with only 10 total TDs allowed on defense, they’re not exactly susceptible to the big play, either.)
Furthermore, of the red-zone TDs against the Irish, only two have come on the ground. And just one has come inside the 10-yard line, a 1-yard run by Oklahoma’s Blake Bell in October — forgivable when you consider that Notre Dame limited the Sooners to 15 rushing yards on 24 carries in a 30-13 victory.
In the Tide’s defense, Alabama’s offensive red-zone efficiency is somewhat higher than most (though lower than three of Notre Dame’s regular-season opponents). Nick Saban’s team, which is looking for its second straight BCS title, scored on 89 percent of its trips inside the 20, with a 72 percent touchdown rate.
And, to be fair, Notre Dame hasn’t exactly been a gang of world-beaters when it comes to red-zone offense. The Irish scored on 79 percent of their trips inside the 20, but defenses kept them out of the end zone more often than not, and as a result, they led the nation with 19 red-zone field goals.
That said, 30 of the Crimson Tide’s 41 red-zone touchdowns this year came on the ground, and the Irish simply don’t allow running backs — even players as talented as Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon — to burst through their line when their backs are against the wall. Just ask Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor or USC’s Silas Redd.
There’s also the issue of Alabama’s defensive numbers perhaps being inflated, with most of the Tide’s truly stalwart performances coming against inferior competition.
In eight games against FBS teams with winning records, Notre Dame allowed 292.1 yards, as opposed to 276.3 against teams with non-winning records. The disparity is much greater, however, for Alabama, which allowed 332.7 yards in six games against teams with winning records while restricting .500-or-worse opponents to just 171.7.
And whereas the Irish have allowed 316.7 yards per game against three ranked opponents, Alabama has given up an average of 379 ypg to four BCS top-25 foes, including recent games against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia that make you wonder if the Tide defense might be more susceptible than once thought.
In the end, both teams are deserving of their stingy reputations, and neither is going to allow the other to score in bunches. But Alabama’s defense has allowed more red-zone touchdowns this season than Notre Dame’s defense has from anywhere on the field. In this battle of field goals, one touchdown might end up being enough for either team to leave Sun Life Stadium with a win.
I’m simply not convinced that Alabama’s offense can succeed where everyone else has failed — inside the Notre Dame 20 — and I think the Tide’s red-zone defense has proven just soft enough to lose. With that in mind, I expect Notre Dame to escape behind a late score and, just maybe, one last goal-line stand.