In the NFL, position-by-position breakdowns are often null and void if there’s a mismatch at the quarterback position. That’s just how the game has evolved at the top level and, in many ways, there is a trickle down effect into the college ranks.
For a quick example, take a glance at the Florida-Louisville Sugar Bowl matchup in which the Cardinals, behind sophomore Teddy Bridgewater distributing the ball, thoroughly outperformed the SEC’s second-best team. The main difference, of course, was Bridgewater — he finished 20-of-32 passing for 266 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 33-23 win. By comparison, Florida’s Jeff Driskel (another sophomore with a still-bright future, mind you) threw for just 177 yards, one touchdown and two picks.
Florida held the edge all over the field on paper; Louisville won the quarterback war.
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The BCS National Championship game looks to have such a mismatch — if not from a talent standpoint, then certainly in terms of accomplishment and performance to date — with Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Notre Dame’s Everett Golson squaring off for all the marbles. The primary focus of the outcome will center around the two teams’ defenses, which rank among the nation’s elite in most categories, but the difference under center swung the tide of last season’s title game and could very well have a significant influence on Monday night’s outcome.
For more, here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Alabama-Notre Dame clash:
With one national title already under his belt, AJ McCarron finished the 2012 regular as the No. 2-rated passer in the country (173.1, just behind Georgia’s Aaron Murray) and has looked every bit the part of a leader on Nick Saban’s team. His 2,669 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions are strong statistics, but his performance in close games — notably game-winning throws against LSU and Georgia — has set him apart from most of the collegiate quarterback crowd. Everett Golson has not had such success. At least not yet. The redshirt freshman has drawn comparisons to Tony Rice, another South Carolina native who led the Irish to their 1988 championship, but his numbers are far from overwhelming (2,135 yards, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions). Golson has the arm talent to challenge the Alabama secondary deep and is more athletic than McCarron, but there is something to be said about being there before and coming out on top.
Though this is Alabama’s bread and butter along with its dominating offensive line, there is not a monumental gap here. Sure, Eddie Lacy is a strong junior runner and T.J. Yeldon is, to put it bluntly, a beast of a freshman. Notre Dame has talent in its backfield as well. Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, the Irish’s two top rushers, were both highly recruited athletes who have produced this season (1,620 yards and nine touchdowns combined), while sophomore George Atkinson III has added another five scores. Not to be overlooked: Everett Golson’s mobility provides another dimension to Notre Dame’s rushing attack. Of course, those numbers pale in comparison to the Yeldon-Lacy duo (two 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown runners). The nod goes to Alabama, but do not expect the Irish’s backfield to be silent.
Alabama boasts its best receiver since Julio Jones in freshman Amari Cooper, who has carried the load since injuries to Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White, but Notre Dame can match the Crimson Tide here. TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert are playmakers whose numbers have lagged with the growing pains of Golson at quarterback — Eifert, in particular, is slated to be one of the top tight ends taken in next April’s NFL Draft. Besides Cooper, Alabama’s Michael Williams has a tendency to pop his head up at opportune times for Saban’s team. Keep an eye on Kevin Norwood, though. The Tide’s second-leading receiver torched LSU’s talented secondary in last year’s BCS title game (four receptions, 78 yards) and McCarron will surely trust him again in the big moments.
Alabama. Alabama. Alabama. This is, perhaps, the most dominant and talented offensive line we have seen in the BCS era, and they’ve performed like it. Just to get to this stage, Saban leaned on this unit while trailing Georgia in the SEC Championship like he has all season — the Crimson Tide finished with 350 yards and three touchdowns to advance to Miami. In total, Alabama has eclipsed the 40-carry mark nine times this season. Don’t expect that to change Monday night, not with this unit. Notre Dame’s unit is solid, leading the way to 202.5 rushing yards per game and allowing just 16 sacks (tied 22nd nationally), but this just isn’t fair comparison.
In being built like an SEC team, which Notre Dame unquestionably is, the strength on the Irish’s defensive line stands out. With future NFL players in junior Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame at least has the ability to contend with the likes of Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker. If Alabama is forced into passing situations, watch out for Tuitt, who finished tied fifth in the country with an average of one sack per game. On the opposite side, Alabama boasts the big, bruising unit of Ed Stinson Jr., Damion Square and nose guard Jesse Williams. Best of luck to the Irish running attack against those guys who anchored the country’s No. 1 rush defense. However, Notre Dame finished No. 2 against the run and is a bit more explosive in rushing the passer.
Slight edge: Notre Dame
Much has been made about the talent gap in this Alabama unit compared to past years, but this remains a disciplined unit under Saban’s tutelage. Senior Nico Johnson and All-American C.J. Mosley can make plays in a variety of ways and know what it takes to get the job done on the big stage. Of course, Notre Dame boasts Manti Te’o, the Heisman runner-up and leader of the top-ranked scoring defense. Te’o was consistently great throughout the season, and his coach, Brian Kelly, could use a similar performance — and an interception or two — in this outing.
Slight edge: Alabama
Quarterbacks like Aaron Murray (Georgia) and Heisman winner Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) have exposed some breakdowns in Alabama’s secondary this season, but it’s being compared to a rag-tag group here. The only remaining projected starter in Notre Dame’s secondary is Zeke Motta, and although KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Fairley and Bennet Jackson compose the rest of the No. 11 pass defense, the unit as a whole has not faced such a balanced opponent yet. (It should be mentioned, however, that Russell held Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee scoreless in the regular season finale.) For its part, Alabama features an AP All-American in Dee Milliner and potential game-changers in HaHa Clinton-Dix and Robert Lester.
The kicking game is a practical wash, as Jeremy Shelley is a perfect 11-for-11 on field goals and Kyle Brindza is an admirable-for-college-kickers 23-of-31. In fact, Brindza is 3-for-3 on kicks longer than 45 yards this season. Alabama evens that edge out by averaging more than three more yards per punt off the foot of Cody Mandell, one of the SEC’s better punters. It’s a little harder to get a grasp on the kick return game, for in 25 combined games these two teams have returned just 46 kicks. Only one player (Alabama’s Christion Jones) has returned a punt or a kick for a score this season. There’s no clear advantage here. To save time, let’s just call it even.
Kelly is the reigning Coach of the Year after pulling off the impressive feat of leading a preseason unranked team to a BCS title appearance. Saban is just, you know, the greatest active college football coach in the country. So no, there’s no shortage of coaching star power in this matchup. And while Kelly’s accomplishments at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now Notre Dame warrant heaps of praise, Saban is chasing history in this game and has proven himself worthy in the championship setting four times already. Given five weeks to prepare, not many can out-scheme him. Saban gets the nod here as he goes for history — his Alabama team would be just the third team ever to capture three titles in four years — and continues his pursuit of Bear Bryant.