SEC: Bowl-overview-2012

AT&T Cotton Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
10:06
PM ET
Texas A&M Aggies (10-2) vs. Oklahoma Sooners (10-2)

Jan. 4, 8 p.m. ET, Arlington, Texas (Fox)

Texas A&M take by GigEmNation's Sam Khan Jr.: The Aggies are one of the surprise stories nationally in college football this season, exceeding preseason expectations by going 10-2 in their first Southeastern Conference campaign.

New coach Kevin Sumlin has injected energy into the program and helped reverse the narrative of 2011, when the preseason-top-10 Aggies couldn't hold on to a second-half lead. Now, Texas A&M closes games out as good as any team.

A lot of that credit can go to its Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. Nicknamed "Johnny Football," Manziel took the college football world by storm with his playmaking ability, producing an eye-popping statistical season by breaking Cam Newton's single-season SEC total yardage record. Manziel compiled 4,600 offensive yards this season, throwing for 3,419 and rushing for 1,181. He was responsible for 43 touchdowns.

But the Aggies have been far from a one-man show.

Questions about the defense -- and the defensive line in particular -- were answered emphatically. Junior Damontre Moore spent most of the season at or near the top spot in the country in tackles for loss (20) and sacks (12.5), where he's tied for fifth and third, respectively.

Perhaps the team's best unit has been its offensive line, which has two future NFL draft picks at the tackle spots (juniors Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews), and a senior center (Patrick Lewis) who has been a catalyst to the team's success.

The Aggies have displayed a high-powered, quick-strike offense under Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and an aggressive defense under coordinator Mark Snyder.




Oklahoma take from SoonerNation's Jake Trotter: From Lee Roy Selmon to Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma has a long, strong defensive tradition. But like almost everyone else in the Big 12, these Sooners win with their high-flying pass offense. Senior quarterback Landry Jones finished off the regular season on fire, throwing for more than 500 yards twice in November while leading the Sooners to a pair of come-from-behind, fourth-quarter wins. Jones, who has a chance to go 4-0 as a bowl-game starter, benefits from one of the most explosive wide receiving corps in the country.

Four different receivers boast more than 500 yards receiving, including Kenny Stills, who leads the Sooners with 75 receptions and 11 touchdowns. All three of OU’s running backs are dangerous in the passing game, too, especially fullback Trey Millard, who had a 73-yard reception against Texas earlier this season.

Opposing offenses have gashed Bob Stoops’ defense on the ground, but the Sooners are not easy to thrown on. Free safety Tony Jefferson is a ferocious tackler, and cornerback Aaron Colvin is a ball hawk.

As co-Big 12 champs, the Sooners had a season worthy of a BCS bowl. But Northern Illinois' sudden ascendance knocked them out of the BCS and the Sugar Bowl. The Sooners did not have a win over a team currently ranked in the AP Top 25. But their two losses came at the hands of top-ranked Notre Dame and Kansas State, which was No. 1 before the Irish. OU was in both games until falling apart in the fourth quarter. The Sooners, however, have owned the fourth quarter down the stretch, coming back in the final seconds to knock off West Virginia and Oklahoma State, then holding off TCU in the last minute.

Capital One Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
9:57
PM ET
Georgia Bulldogs (11-2) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-3)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, Orlando, Fla. (ABC)

Georgia take by DawgNation's David Ching: Shortly after watching his team survive Georgia’s last-ditch effort to score the winning touchdown in the closing seconds of Saturday’s SEC championship game, Alabama coach Nick Saban said it would be a “crying shame” if the Bulldogs (11-2) didn’t play in a BCS bowl.

The 32-28 win by Saban’s Crimson Tide ensured that would not be the case, however, spoiling Georgia’s BCS championship hopes in soul-crushing fashion. The Bulldogs no doubt think it’s a shame, as well, after falling 5 yards short of the winning score and a chance to play Notre Dame for a national title. Instead, Georgia will attempt to put the finishing touches on what could become the best season in a decade by winning its bowl. A bowl victory would give Georgia its third 12-win season in school history.

The Bulldogs got to this point by playing stout defense in the second half of the season -- starting with a 17-9 win against then-No. 2 Florida -- to go along with a balanced offense led by quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley. They swept rivals Florida, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech for the second straight season and rallied from the lone blemish in the regular season, a 35-7 loss at South Carolina, in impressive fashion.

The Bulldogs will naturally ask what if for months after Saturday’s crushing loss, but Georgia’s back-to-back SEC East championships and the near-miss against Alabama indicate that the Bulldogs are once again major players on the national scene.




Nebraska take from Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Bo Pelini’s Huskers head to the Capital One Bowl for the second straight season, and this time they do so with an extremely sour taste in their mouths. Nebraska was on the cusp of its first conference championship since 1999 after a resilient performance down the stretch in Big Ten play. Needing only to beat a Wisconsin team it defeated Sept. 29, Nebraska imploded in the Big Ten title game, surrendering 70 points and 539 rushing yards, the most rushing yards it has ever allowed.

How will the Huskers respond? Until Saturday night, their resiliency had been their hallmark, as they erased double-digit, second-half deficits in four Big Ten games (versus Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and Penn State) to win the Legends Division. Junior quarterback Taylor Martinez made significant strides from 2011, completing 62.2 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He shares the backfield with an outstanding group of ball carriers, led by senior Rex Burkhead and sophomore Ameer Abdullah, who filled in admirably for Burkhead during most of the season. The Huskers' offense can strike quickly and often, but it also is too prone to mistakes with 32 turnovers, the sixth most in the FBS.

Nebraska’s defense truly has been a mixed bag this season. The Huskers improved down the stretch in Big Ten play but fell apart in losses to UCLA (653 yards allowed), Ohio State (498 yards allowed) and Wisconsin (640 yards allowed). The Blackshirts will need to rebound in a big way against quarterback Aaron Murray and Georgia.

TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
9:55
PM ET
Mississippi State Bulldogs (8-4) vs. Northwestern Wildcats (9-3)

Jan. 1, noon ET, Jacksonville, Fla. (ESPN2)

Mississippi State take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: What started as a possible dream season for the Bulldogs, quickly turned ugly when the month of November rolled around.

The Bulldogs started off the season 7-0 and rose as high as 11 in the BCS rankings. While the early part of the schedule was very favorable to Mississippi State, this team showed a ton of promise with how balanced it was on offense and how much its secondary frustrated opposing offenses.

Through the first seven games of the season, the Bulldogs allowed an average of 327 yards. The 95 points allowed by their defense was the lowest total through the first seven contests for the Bulldogs since the 1999 team held opponents to 74 points.

Quarterback Tyler Russell was also one of the nation’s most efficient passers and was one of just three quarterbacks with 15-plus touchdowns and just one interception through seven games.

But after being blown out by 31 against Alabama and setting foot in November, the Bulldogs fell apart. The lack of a consistent pass rush and execution issues on offense set the Bulldogs back, as they went 1-4 in their past five games and were outscored by 93 in the process.

The season ended with a 41-24 loss to archrival Ole Miss in Oxford. It was the Bulldogs’ first loss to the Rebels since 2008.

Even though the regular season ended in a very unflattering way, the Bulldogs could still finish the year with nine wins for the second time in four years.




Northwestern take from Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: Northwestern not only reversed the recent trend of declining wins totals this season, but it left its fans wanting more. The Wildcats went 9-3 to match their best regular-season record under seventh-year coach Pat Fitzgerald, and they were a play or two away from winning the Legends Division. If they had held onto late leads against both Nebraska and Michigan, the purple could be heading back to Pasadena.

Although finishing games was a struggle at times, Northwestern exceeded almost all expectations with a young roster. After finishing no better than 45th nationally in rushing during Fitzgerald’s first six years, the Wildcats’ ground game surged this season (14th nationally, third in the Big Ten). Junior running back Venric Mark blossomed in his first season as the starter, and, along with quarterback Kain Colter, formed one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous backfield tandems. Northwestern used both Colter and sophomore Trevor Siemian at quarterback and went from a pass-first offense to a run-driven attack, as Mark earned second-team All-Big Ten honors and finished ninth nationally in all-purpose yards (170.7 ypg).

A much-maligned defense had some hiccups along the way but made obvious strides, too. Linebacker David Nwabuisi saved his best season for last, and younger players like safety Ibraheim Campbell, cornerback Nick VanHoose and linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo stepped up.

The next step is obvious: winning a bowl game for the first time since the 1949 Rose. Although Northwestern moved down a few spots in the selection order after being pegged for Capital One on Saturday night, the Wildcats have a winnable game against struggling Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

BBVA Compass Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
9:54
PM ET
Pittsburgh Panthers (6-6) vs. Ole Miss Rebels (6-6)

Jan. 5, 1 p.m. ET, Birmingham, Ala. (ESPN)

Pittsburgh take from Big East blogger Matt Fortuna: The Paul Chryst era began with a 14-point home loss to FCS team Youngstown State. Five days later, it continued with a 24-point loss at rival Cincinnati.

But Pitt won its next two games, setting the stage for a season that consisted only of two-game losing and winning streaks, culminating with a home rout of Rutgers and a 27-3 win at South Florida that lifted the team to a 6-6 record and extended its season into bowl play.

A big reason for the turnaround has been fifth-year quarterback Tino Sunseri, who was a scapegoat last season under Todd Graham but has been much more efficient in Chryst's pro-style attack. None of Sunseri's final 270 pass attempts were intercepted, giving him the nation's longest active streak without getting picked off. He has 19 touchdown tosses and just two picks on the season, to go with a 66.5 completion percentage and 3,103 yards. Sunseri has been aided by the resiliency of senior Ray Graham, who overcame a right ACL tear midway through last season to notch his first career 1,000-yard rushing season.

Defensively, the Panthers boast the nation's No. 16 overall unit, surrendering just 325.83 yards per game. They held South Florida to a program-low 115 total yards of offense in their regular-season finale.

This is a team that has consistently played up or down to its competition, routing Virginia Tech for its first win of the season and coming within a missed field goal of knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in South Bend, Ind.




Ole Miss take from SEC blogger Edward Aschoff: What a start for first-year coach Hugh Freeze. After taking over a program that had a wealth of attitude and personnel issues, Freeze guided the Rebels to a bowl game for the first time since 2009 and watched his team win three SEC games after entering the season on a 14-game conference losing streak.

Ole Miss’ six wins matched the total number of wins the Rebels had in the final two years of Houston Nutt’s tenure.

The Rebels matched last year’s win total after their 2-0 start. What made the Rebels such a tough opponent for most of the year was how explosive the offense was. Behind playmakers Bo Wallace, Jeff Scott and Donte Moncrief, Ole Miss rushed for close to 170 yards a game and threw for 257 a contest.

Feeding Moncrief became the norm, as he was fifth in the SEC with 948 receiving yards and had 10 touchdowns.

The defense showed improvement from last year, but did have its issues. Texas piled on 66 points in Oxford and the Rebels surrendered 30 or more points in four SEC games (all losses).

Ole Miss also had its share of second-half failures in SEC games, but rebounded at the best time with a 41-24 win over archrival Mississippi State to capture the Egg Bowl for the first time since 2008. After being outscored 68-21 in the second halves of three straight losses leading up to the Mississippi State game, Ole Miss outscored the Bulldogs 24-7 in the final two quarters in order to become bowl eligible.
NC State Wolfpack (7-5) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4)

Dec. 31, Noon ET, Nashville, Tenn. (ESPN)

NC State take from ACC blogger Heather Dinich: It was a wild, unpredictable season for NC State that ended in the firing of former coach Tom O’Brien just one day after the regular season had ended. Offensive coordinator Dana Bible will coach the Wolfpack in its bowl game, but former Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren was hired on Saturday to replace O’Brien.

NC State began the season with a disappointing loss to Tennessee in which weaknesses in the highly touted secondary were immediately exposed. The Pack went on to win its next three games, but lost the ACC season opener against Miami. In typical inexplicable NC State fashion, the Pack responded the following week by knocking off then-No. 3 Florida State in what was one of the biggest upsets in program history. It was a shocking fourth quarter that resonated throughout all of college football and all but ended the Seminoles’ hopes of playing for a national title. Despite the 17-16 win over FSU, though, NC State couldn’t translate that upset into anything meaningful in the Atlantic Division standings (a major reason O’Brien was fired).

Instead, NC State suffered its first loss in five seasons to rival North Carolina and was embarrassed at home in a baffling loss to a struggling Virginia team. NC State rallied to win two of its final three games to become bowl eligible, but it wasn’t enough to save O’Brien’s job. Doeren, who led Northern Illinois to its second straight MAC championship on Friday night, will not coach his former team in the Discover Orange Bowl.




Vanderbilt take from SEC blogger Chris Low: Counting up all the firsts this season for Vanderbilt would take a while.

James Franklin, in his second season as coach, has come in and taken this program to heights that few people thought possible. Their Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl matchup with NC State will be the Commodores' second straight bowl appearance. It’s the first time in school history that the Commodores have gone to bowl games in back-to-back years. Their eight wins in the regular season are their most since 1982, and their five SEC wins are their most since 1935. They enter the postseason on a six-game winning streak, and probably the best news for the Commodores is that they’ve locked up Franklin to a new contract. The university announced on Sunday that Franklin had agreed to a new deal, which will include enhancements to the football complex and Vanderbilt Stadium.

Franklin’s phone has rung a bunch ever since the season ended with other schools inquiring about his interest, but the Commodores have convinced him that they’re serious about building a winning football program. Franklin has assembled an excellent staff, which is reflected in the Commodores’ discipline and their mental toughness. They’re ranked 17th nationally in total defense, the second straight season that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has field a top-20 defense nationally. Only four times this season did a team score more than 21 points against Vanderbilt.

Offensively, senior Zac Stacy went over the 1,000-yard mark rushing for the second straight season, and the receiving combo of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd combined for more than 2,000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.

Chick-fil-A Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
9:32
PM ET
LSU Tigers (10-2) vs. Clemson Tigers (10-2)

Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m. ET, Atlanta (ESPN)

LSU take by GeauxTigerNation's Gary Laney: How does one judge LSU's season?

At 10-2, the Tigers fell short of their preseason No. 1 ranking. They failed to make the SEC championship game, much less defend their conference title.

On the other hand, LSU masterfully overcame a ton of problems.

Tyrann Mathieu, the Tigers' Heisman Trophy finalist at cornerback, was dismissed from the team in August. Chris Faulk, the left tackle who seemed destined to be drafted by the second round, was lost to a knee injury after one game, and running back Alfred Blue was also lost to a knee injury a couple of weeks later. The Tigers finished the season with three offensive line starters who weren't starters at the beginning of the season.

Yet, by the end of the regular season, LSU seemed to have it figured out. Zach Mettenberger was much improved in the passing game, and Jeremy Hill emerged as one of the nation's best freshmen running backs. And the defense, though it gave up passing yards late in the season, remained solid, led by end Sam Montgomery and linebacker Kevin Minter.

So how LSU's season is perceived might come down to how the Tigers play in the bowl. If the offense continues its resurgence and the Tigers win, they will go into the offseason with a rosy outlook. If the Tigers lose and the defense continues to give up passing yards, followed by the seemingly inevitable loss of underclassmen like Montgomery and free safety Eric Reid to the NFL draft, it could be an offseason of worry on the bayou.




Clemson take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: Clemson, much like Florida State this year, was oh-so-close to something bigger than the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but the Tigers’ losses to the Seminoles and rival South Carolina ruined the program’s chances at a second straight appearance in the ACC championship and a BCS bowl.

That’s not to say this wasn’t a successful season for coach Dabo Swinney. The Tigers maintained their position as a top 15 team all year, and have thrived behind a high-scoring offense led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, who was named the ACC’s Player of the Year. In his second season as a starter, Boyd helped lead Clemson to back-to-back 10-win seasons, the first Clemson quarterback to do that since Rodney Williams in1987-88. Clemson had the No. 6 scoring offense in the country this year (42.33) points per game, but was smothered in a 27-17 loss to South Carolina. The defense under first-year coordinator Brent Venables was better, but it wasn’t championship-caliber, finishing No. 47 in the county, allowing 24.92 points per game.

Clemson’s only ACC loss this year was in Tallahassee to a Florida State team that was ranked No. 4 in the country at the time. Clemson reeled off seven straight wins after that loss and had momentum heading into its regular-season finale against the Gamecocks, but for the fourth straight season, Clemson was outplayed and outcoached by its in-state rival.

Clemson will forever be remembered for its abysmal performance in last year’s Discover Orange Bowl, but this matchup against LSU will be a chance for the Tigers to take a monumental step towards redeeming their postseason image.

Outback Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
9:16
PM ET
South Carolina Gamecocks (10-2) vs. Michigan Wolverines (8-4)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET, Tampa, Fla. (ESPN)

South Carolina take from SEC blogger Chris Low: All you really need to know about South Carolina’s program right now is that the Gamecocks are one win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl away from having their second straight 11-win season. Until last year, they’d never won 11 games in a season in their history.

Steve Spurrier has the Gamecocks rocking along, and they were close to making it back to the SEC championship game this season for the second time in the past three years. They had a brutal three-game stretch against Georgia, LSU and Florida and wound up losing to both the Tigers and Gators on the road after routing the Bulldogs by four touchdowns at home. Still, the Gamecocks head into the postseason on a four-game winning streak and capped the regular season with a 27-17 win over Clemson, which was South Carolina’s fourth straight in the series. It’s the first time since 1951-54 that the Gamecocks have won four in a row over their bitter in-state rivals.

They boast one of the most explosive defensive players in the country in sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who leads the SEC with 13 sacks. Good luck in trying to block him one-on-one. South Carolina is ranked 12th nationally in total defense and 13th in scoring defense. The Gamecocks held opponents to 20 or fewer points in nine of their 12 games this season. For the second straight year, they were forced to finish the season without star tailback Marcus Lattimore, who suffered yet another serious knee injury. South Carolina beat Clemson with backup quarterback Dylan Thompson throwing for 310 yards and three touchdowns. But starter Connor Shaw, who missed the Clemson game with a foot injury, should be back for the bowl.




Michigan take from WolverineNation's Michael Rothstein: The biggest question for Michigan in its bowl game is where senior Denard Robinson will line up.

Will he be at quarterback? Running back? Slot receiver? Kick returner? All of these are possible in the finale for one of college football’s most exciting players. Robinson also has a shot at breaking former West Virginia quarterback Pat White’s FBS quarterback rushing record of 4,480 yards. Robinson has 4,395 career yards.

The success or failure of Michigan’s team, though, lies not with Robinson but with its defense. The Wolverines have one of the best linebacking units in the Big Ten, led by redshirt sophomore Jake Ryan, who is the team leader in tackles (84), tackles for loss (14.5), forced fumbles (four), quarterback hurries (two) and is tied with Craig Roh for the team lead in sacks (four).

Michigan’s pass defense, ranked highly this season, is not quite as good as the numbers indicate. The Wolverines are ranked in the 30s in pass-efficiency defense, and have been adept in not allowing big plays this season.

When Michigan has the ball, it will look to a combination of Robinson and junior quarterback Devin Gardner. Gardner has been the quarterback the past four games and has helped in a renaissance with senior receiver Roy Roundtree, who has 378 yards in his past four games.

It will still all come down to Michigan’s quarterback play and defense, though, which has been the theme for the Wolverines the past three seasons.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
9:02
PM ET
Louisville Cardinals (10-2) vs. Florida Gators (11-1)

Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET, New Orleans (ESPN)

Louisville take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: The Cardinals were the overwhelming preseason choice to win the Big East because they returned just about everybody off a team that won a share of the league title last season. The star among the bunch lived up to his top billing, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knocked just about everybody’s socks off with his performance in 2012. He is the biggest reason why Louisville is headed to the BCS and not a second-tier bowl game.

But this team had major adversity to overcome. Louisville survived one close call after another en route to a school-record 9-0 start. Then came loss No. 1 on the season, a stunning 45-26 blowout on the road to Syracuse in which the Orange outplayed the Cardinals in every single phase of the game. Then came loss No. 2, an inexplicable triple-overtime home defeat to UConn -- a team with one of the worst offenses in the nation. In that game, Bridgewater broke his wrist and sprained his ankle, yet nearly led a comeback win.

Louisville went into its regular-season finale at Rutgers without many people giving the Cards much of a shot to win. Rutgers jumped out to a 14-3 lead. But Bridgewater refused to be denied. Playing through his injuries, he led Louisville to a 20-17 comeback win to clinch the BCS spot. Bridgewater ended up throwing for 3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season and was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the entire nation. He may have been an unknown outside the Big East before the season began; that is no longer the case.

Bridgewater allowed his team to survive the loss of leading rusher Senorise Perry, who tore his ACL against Syracuse and is out for the season. He allowed his team to win games it struggled in for a large chunk of time. And he allowed his team to survive some pretty shaky play on defense. It’s safe to say that many expected Louisville to be better than it was defensively this season, particularly up front. But for a majority of the season, the Cardinals had a hard time consistently stopping the run or consistently getting a pass rush going.

And yet, Louisville found a way to win 10 games and get back to a BCS game. In Teddy, Louisville trusts.




Florida take from GatorNation's Michael DiRocco: The Gators were one of the nation’s biggest surprises this season.

They followed up a 7-6 mark in coach Will Muschamp’s debut season with an 11-1 record in 2012, highlighted by victories over Texas A&M, South Carolina, LSU and Florida State. And if USC had upset Notre Dame, Florida could possibly be playing for the national title.

Florida’s turnaround was led by a smothering defense, which isn’t surprising considering Muschamp’s background. The Gators rank in the top six nationally in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense and have allowed opponents to throw just five touchdown passes. Safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jon Bostic have had career years.

But the biggest change is how good the Gators have been at forcing turnovers this season. UF forced just 14 in 2011, which was the lowest single-season total in school history since the school began compiling fumble stats in 1950. This year, UF has forced 29, which includes 19 interceptions (four by Elam), and the Gators have a plus-17 turnover margin.

UF’s offense hasn’t been pretty, but coordinator Brent Pease did a good job of compensating for a lack of playmakers at receiver and injuries along the offensive line. Running back Mike Gillislee finally got his chance to be the feature back, and he responded with 1,104 yards and 10 touchdowns to become the first UF player to surpass 1,000 yards since Ciatrick Fason in 2004.

After finally settling on Jeff Driskel as the starter, Pease put together game plans that took advantage of Driskel’s mobility and didn’t ask the sophomore to do too much. Manage the game and stay away from mistakes were the goals, and Driskel did that this season with one exception (Georgia). He ended up throwing for 1,471 yards and 11 TDs -- many of those yards to tight end Jordan Reed (44 catches for 552 yards) -- with only three interceptions while running for 409 yards and four touchdowns.

The Gators could play conservatively on offense because of their outstanding defense, but also because of punter Kyle Christy and kicker Caleb Sturgis. Christy, a Ray Guy Award finalist, was a field-position weapon with a 46.1-yard average (fifth nationally) and 25 punts of 50 or more yards. Sturgis, a Lou Groza Award finalist, made 23 of 27 field goal attempts and is the school’s all-time leader in field goals (69) and field goals of 50 or more yards (eight).
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-0) vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1)

Jan. 7, 8:30 p.m. ET, Miami (ESPN)

Notre Dame take from Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna: Haven't you heard? Notre Dame is back. No, not BCS-bowl back. BCS national title game back.

The No. 1 Irish ran the table in the regular season and are the only bowl-eligible team left that is spotless in the loss column. They navigated a tough stretch featuring opponents from five BCS conferences and two independents. And now they will get one more chance to prove this was no fluke on Jan. 7, when they take on a team from the one conference they have yet to face in 2012: the SEC, winners of the past six national titles.

The key for Notre Dame all season has been the defense, which gives up just 10.33 points per game and has surrendered just 10 touchdowns all season long, with one of those scores coming from the opposing team's defense (Stanford). The Irish showed their toughness in the trenches by utilizing goal-line stands to hold off a pair of Pac-12 opponents in Stanford and USC, and their offense has started to come along after some early-season missteps.

Redshirt freshman Everett Golson went the final three games without getting yanked for performance issues, and he has turned the ball over just once during that stretch. He has been aided by a ground game averaging 202.5 yards per game, and he has flashed his ability to run much more as the season has progressed. He has rushed for 316 yards in his last seven games after netting negative-11 yards on the ground through his first four outings, in which he was benched twice in favor of Tommy Rees.

Speaking of rushing … good luck moving the ball on the ground against this defense. Notre Dame ranks fifth nationally against the run, surrendering just 92.42 yards per game. The Irish did not give up a rushing touchdown until the eighth game of the season, against Oklahoma's Blake Bell. Heisman candidate Manti Te'o gets much of the attention, and he deserves every bit of it, but don't overlook future early-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front.

For all the national talk about the SEC, America probably won't see something much further from last year's title game, as the Irish fit the blueprint of a successful SEC team this season.




Alabama take by TideNation's Alex Scarborough: Believe it or not, the Crimson Tide are finishing the season right where they started. Despite losing eight starters to the NFL draft in April -- including three first-rounders and one Heisman Trophy finalist -- the expectation for Nick Saban's squad remained "BCS or bust" with a preseason No. 2 ranking. After beating Georgia to win the SEC championship on Saturday night, No. 2 is where Alabama will finish in the final BCS Standings of the season.

The talent in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was never in question. Five straight top-3 recruiting classes filled the coffers, and the coaching staff used their young players wisely, incorporating a pair of potential Freshmen All-Americans in running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper. With junior AJ McCarron under center again, the offense has gone to new heights.

The defense rallied around a handful of veterans to maintain its top-dog status. Alabama led the country in total defense for the second straight season after losing stars like Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick , Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. A fresh set of leaders emerged to reinvent the Alabama defense as something possibly less dominant, but more stingy. The Tide created more takeaways and sacks than a year ago, and practiced a bend-but-don't-break mindset in the biggest games.

Like last season, Alabama's path to the national championship game was not without a speed bump, and this time it wasn't LSU blocking the Tide's way. A week after surviving Death Valley and the LSU Tigers, Alabama was shocked at home by freshman phenom Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies, dropping the Tide out of the title race from No. 1 to No. 4 in the BCS Standings. A week later, No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon fell on the same night, paving Alabama's way back to Miami.

Alabama assured itself a berth in the title game by beating No. 3 Georgia in remarkable fashion, surviving an SEC-title record five lead changes. It was the Tide's fourth win against a ranked team this season. Net up is a chance for a fifth, against No. 1 Notre Dame. Alabama will be the seventh consecutive SEC team to compete in the BCS National Championship Game. It's Alabama's third trip to the title game in four years.

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