- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Notre Dame and Alabama are squaring off Jan. 7 in the Discover BCS National Championship, in case you haven't heard. With the matchup more than a month away, TideNation's Alex Scarborough and Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna go back and forth on a number of topics between the Tide and Irish.
AS: The other day Nick Saban called Notre Dame's front seven possibly the best in college football. How do you think it stacks up and what is it about the Irish defense that makes it special?
MF: One of the most overlooked pieces of Notre Dame's defense has been nose guard Louis Nix. He is a junior who came in overweight two years ago, dropped roughly 40 pounds, and then was told last year that he might not see 20 snaps a game. Injuries turned him into nearly a full-time starter last year, and he has taken his game to another level this year. His numbers -- five tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble -- simply do not do him justice. He regularly takes on two blockers at a time, freeing up athletic end Stephon Tuitt (12 sacks) and allowing the Irish linebackers to make more plays. The biggest question for me -- especially after the SEC title game -- is how much pressure can these guys get on AJ McCarron? Is this offensive line invincible?
AS: The offensive line is about as invincible as it gets in one respect -- the running game. When Alabama commits to handing the ball off the Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, there's not much a defense can do. The job Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and Co. do pushing the line of scrimmage is remarkable. But in another respect, the line is somewhat vulnerable. Georgia showed it's not very difficult to get pressure on the backfield. It's why Alabama committed to the running game like it did in Atlanta. There wasn't much of a choice with Jarvis Jones harassing McCarron.
If there's a spot to attack Alabama's defense, it's the passing game. Georgia hit the Tide up for big play after big play on Saturday. Does Notre Dame have enough with Everett Golson to stretch the field and keep the defense honest?
MF: I think the Irish do, although if they fall behind early it will be difficult. Golson's growth over the course of the season has been crucial to Notre Dame's 12-0 season, and you've seen the offense open up more almost every week. Golson netted negative-11 rushing yards over his first four games; he has netted 316 in his past seven games (he missed the BYU game because of a concussion). Tyler Eifert is arguably the best tight end in the country and has developed a better rapport with Golson as the season has progressed, and the Irish should be welcoming back deep threat DaVaris Daniels (broken left clavicle) for the title game as well.
AS: Much has been made of the way Brian Kelly has turned around the program in South Bend and how he's recreated it with an SEC flavor in mind. How do you evaluate the job he's done in such a short time and do you see an SEC-type formula in what he's built? Is it a team that you feel could contend in the conference that's come away with six straight national championships?
MF: The general feeling upon Kelly's hiring was that if he couldn't win at Notre Dame, who could? He's done it at every step of his career, from Div. II to the MAC to the Big East, and now at Notre Dame. The difference is he is now doing it with defense, something he said from Day 1 would be required to contend, especially given the variety of offenses the Irish face with their independent schedule. You see that now with their front-seven, and especially on the line, where all three of their starters (Kapron Lewis-Moore - Texas, Nix - Florida, Tuitt - Georgia) hail from SEC country. Even athletic director Jack Swarbrick said he felt that Year 4 would be the time that Notre Dame would contend for a national title, so it's safe to say that Kelly is ahead of schedule. This team is built like an SEC squad, and it could certainly contend in the nation's best conference this season. The question is if the Irish can sustain this kind of success.
From the outside looking in, it would appear that this Alabama team is less talented than the last two to win championships, and maybe even less talented than the 2010 squad that didn't win it. Is that a fair statement, and what's it say about Nick Saban that he has the Tide back on the sport's biggest stage yet again, despite taking everyone's best shot?
AS: It's tough to say the Tide are less talented today than they were a year or even two years ago. To me, it's a matter of performance as I can look out and see a number of future NFL prospects on both sides of the ball. I believe what we're seeing this season is a result of a lack of experience and seasoning, not ability. You have first- or second-year players starting at 10 or more positions at any given time. I think that a year from now we'll be saying something much different about the talent in Tuscaloosa. That said, you have to commend the job Saban and his coordinators have done to this point masking inexperience. Remember, Alabama lost 11 starters from a year ago. Saban replaced star cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with Dee Milliner, who some scouts believe might be the top defensive back available in this year's draft. Saban replaced the Trent Richardson/Eddie Lacy tailback combo with Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon, who has rushed for 1,000 yards this season. It's remarkable how the Tide haven't missed a beat, and that all traces back to the staff's ability to recruit and develop players. Alabama has finished with a top-3 recruiting class every year since 2008.