Notre Dame and Alabama have each given up 111 points this season, the fewest in FBS. Both teams have held six opponents to 10 points or fewer, the most in the nation.
If defense wins championships, then who has the edge? The Tide and their defensive schemes under coach Nick Saban or the Irish and their dominating front seven led by Heisman candidate Manti Te’o?
The first thing teams must do on defense is stop the run. FBS teams are 211-42 when rushing for at least 250 yards this season.
Alabama and Notre Dame are two of the best against the run. Neither team has allowed an opponent to run for more than 170 yards this season. Florida State, Florida and TCU are the only other FBS teams who can make this claim.
Alabama has been slightly better at limiting yards. The Tide are allowing the third fewest yards per game (75.6) and the second-lowest yards per rush (2.3) in FBS this season. That is 16.6 fewer yards and 0.8 fewer yards per rush than Notre Dame. The Tide have also been better at limiting long runs. Alabama’s opponents have 21 rushes that have gained 10 or more yards, second-fewest in FBS and 10 fewer than Notre Dame.
Notre Dame has been the nation’s best at conceding touchdowns. The Irish have conceded two rushing touchdowns this season; every other FBS team has allowed at least five. In goal-to-go situations Notre Dame has been dominant, allowing one rushing touchdown and -31 rush yards in 18 attempts. That’s the fewest touchdowns and yards on such runs in FBS.
Tackling is fundamental to stopping the run. The Irish have 55 missed tackles this season, the third fewest among AQ schools. Alabama has 66 missed tackles, third fewest in the SEC and 13th amongst AQ schools.
Opponents have struggled to move the ball through the air against both Alabama and Notre Dame. Both teams have allowed just six pass touchdowns and rank in the top 11 in pass efficiency defense.
At first glance, the Tide’s numbers appear to be better than Notre Dame’s. They are allowing 164.5 yards per game, fourth fewest in FBS and roughly 30 fewer yards per game than the Irish. Yet, Notre Dame has been better against ranked opponents. Alabama’s averaged 239.5 passing yards per game with five touchdowns and four interceptions. The Irish’s ranked opponents averaged 203.5 passing yards per game with no touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Defense vs Throws of 20+ Yards
Notre Dame’s secondary has been questioned, but the Irish have allowed just seven completions on 41 pass attempts thrown 20 yards or longer downfield. The Tide have allowed 13 completions on 50 such passes.
Alabama has been better at keeping short throws to short gains. The Tide have given up 56.6 yards after the catch per game this season and only two opponents have had more than 100 yards after the catch. Notre Dame on the other hand has allowed 102.7 such yards per game with eight of its 11 opponents gaining at least 100 yards after the catch.
RED ZONE DEFENSE
Notre Dame is one of the best red zone defenses in recent history. The Irish have allowed a touchdown on 24.1 percent of their opponents’ red zone drives this season, the lowest percentage for any FBS team in the last eight seasons. Overall, Irish opponents have scored seven touchdowns and committed five turnovers in 29 red zone possessions.
Alabama is allowing opponents to score a touchdown on 47.8 percent of their red zone possessions, the 20th-lowest percentage in FBS this season. The good news for Tide fans is their opponents do not reach the red zone often. Alabama’s opponents have reached the red zone on 23 of their 136 drives (16.9 percent), the fourth lowest percentage in FBS. Like Notre Dame, Alabama has forced five red zone turnovers, including four in conference play.
LIMITING GAME-CHANGING PLAYS
Notre Dame has allowed 14 plays that have gained 25 yards or more, tied for second fewest in FBS. Alabama has allowed 20 such plays, tied for 13th in FBS. Alabama and Notre Dame are tied with Florida for the fewest touchdowns of 25 yards of longer (1) allowed this season.
Alabama has forced 24 turnovers that have led to 143 points this season. Notre Dame has 21 turnovers but has scored only 45 points off of those turnovers. Yet, 12 of Notre Dame’s 21 turnovers have come when the game is within one score. Alabama has built so many big leads that only five of their 24 turnovers have come in close games.