BCS title game: How ND can pull off an upset

Notre Dame finally meets Alabama in the BCS championship game on Monday night after nearly five weeks of hype.

The Crimson Tide consistently have been 9- to 9 ½-point favorites since the matchup was announced.

Notre Dame fans have some reasons to be hopeful, though.

The unbeaten Fighting Irish have one of the nation’s top defenses thanks to a physical front seven led by linebacker Manti Te’o. They also have several fast skill players and future NFL linemen on offense.

There also are a few historical items:

• Since the BCS was implemented in 1998, teams trying to repeat as champions in the title game are 0-3.

• Notre Dame coaches Lou Holtz, Dan Devine, Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy all won national championships in their third season. Brian Kelly is in his third year.

• SEC powers Louisiana State (to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl) and Florida (to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl) already have lost their postseason games. Will Alabama do the same?

In truth, the game will be determined by what happens at Sun Life Stadium on Monday night.

Here’s a closer look at Notre Dame’s top players and three keys for the Irish as they try to win the school’s ninth national title.

Top players

Linebacker Manti Te’o: Runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting, the Hawaiian is the heart and soul of a unit that led the nation in scoring defense (10.33). The senior led the team in tackles (103, 52 solo) and interceptions (seven). Despite not winning the Heisman, Te’o became the most decorated defensive player in college football history by winning the Maxwell Award (top college player) and the Chuck Bednarik Award (top defensive player), among other honors.

Quarterback Everett Golson: The mobile redshirt freshman beat out incumbent Tommy Rees, who has more of a traditional drop-back style, before the season. Golson had some rough times early — he was relieved several times by Rees early in the season; he didn’t start the Miami game for violating team rules; he missed the BYU game after suffering a concussion. But Golson has persevered and steadily improved. His mobility could give Alabama some trouble.

Running back Theo Riddick: The senior returned to his original position after two years at wide receiver to rush for 880 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. He produced 1,244 yards total offense.

Tight end Tyler Eifert: The 6-foot-6, 251-pounder presents a tough matchup for opposing defenses. He has 22 catches in his past four games. He’s also a fine blocker. Eifert has an uncanny ability to find separation, and his height makes an ideal target for jump-ball passes in the end zone.

Strengths

Notre Dame’s bread and butter is its defensive front seven. Besides allowing just 10.33 points and 92 rushing yards per game, the unit has excelled when opponents enter the red zone. Goal-line stands against Stanford and Southern California are among the season’s top moments.

The offensive skill players are playmakers. Golson, Riddick, Cierre Wood, George Atkinson and Eifert all have the ability to frustrate a defense and bust open big plays.

Kyle Brindza set a school record with 23 field goals, including one game-winner and a game-tying kick in the pouring rain. His long is 52 yards.

Weaknesses
 
The defensive secondary doesn’t rate with the front seven. Several opposing passers were able to put up some nice stats this season, first and foremost Oklahoma’s Landry Jones (35 of 51 for 356 yards and an interception).  

Although Brindza has had a fine season overall, he missed four field goal tries inside 40 yards.

Alabama is used to such a long layoff before its bowl game, but it’s new to Notre Dame. How will it affect the Irish?

Three keys to victory

Stopping the Alabama rushing game: Notre Dame’s defense was stout against the run, allowing just 92 yards per game. The unit surrendered just two rushing touchdowns all season.

Alabama, however, averaged 224.6 yards and scored at least two rushing touchdowns in 10 of 14 games this year. Barrett Jones, the Rimington Trophy winner as the nation’s best center, leads an offensive line that has done a great job opening holes for running backs Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon and protecting quarterback AJ McCarron.

Offensive line needs to give speed a chance: Riddick, Wood and especially Atkinson have the speed to generate big plays if given openings. Center Braxston Cave and tackle Zack Martin highlight a line that has allowed only 10 sacks in the past 11 games. The Notre Dame line will be tested severely against Alabama, which led the nation in total defense (246 ypg) and rushing defense (79.8). The Crimson Tide defensive line helped ‘Bama average 2.5 sacks per game.

Hang tough early: With Notre Dame a heavy underdog, many people expect the Fighting Irish to wilt under the pressure created by the SEC champions. If Notre Dame can take and maintain a lead or stay close during the first half, that would boost the team’s confidence against the Crimson Tide and help it taste a national title within its grasp.