MIAMI -- Alabama will win its third Discover BCS National Championship in four seasons because it matches up well against every one of Notre Dame's strengths, physical or mental, tangible or no. Conversely, the Fighting Irish aren't built to take advantage of the Tide's weaknesses. Notre Dame plays fundamentally sound, well-executed football. Notre Dame is well-coached. Notre Dame is physical at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. But Alabama is all of those things, and maybe even a little more of all of those things. Here's why:
Alabama head coach Nick Saban believes that last season's BCS title -- or the 2009 title -- doesn't matter. Each season is an organism unto itself. If that's what he needs his players to believe for them to focus, fine. But you can't tell me that knowing what it feels like to step on the big stage won't be an advantage for Alabama. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly believes that the Irish are ready for the spectacle and pressure of Monday night in part because of their success at Oklahoma in October. It was loud. It was intense. It was a huge step forward for Notre Dame. And it in no way resembled the atmosphere of a BCS National Championship. Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin told me that until midseason, the coaches believed that their team was a year away. The Irish proved them wrong, but it's hard to believe that their relative callowness won't bring them up short against the Crimson Tide.
2. The Alabama running game
It's not just that Alabama's two All-Americans on the offensive line, guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones, have 88 starts between them. It's not just that junior tailback Eddie Lacy (1,182 yards) got better as the season progressed, running for a career-high 181 yards in the SEC championship game against Georgia. It's that behind Lacy is freshman T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for exactly 1,000 yards. Lacy is a bruising, twisting runner. Yeldon is an intimidating package of size and speed. Over four quarters, they take a toll.
Brian Kelly has proved he can win at several levels of college football. He is a dynamo. He has done college football a great service by restoring Notre Dame to the ranks of the game's elite programs. But neither Kelly nor any other active coach has taken a team to the heights where Alabama resides. The Crimson Tide are 60-7 (.896) over the past five seasons. Saban has won as his staff has changed. (Only two coaches remain from 2007, his first season in Tuscaloosa.) He has maintained his recruiting prowess even as Alabama has continued to win. And he is the reason that those top recruits reach their potential. "The unique thing about our program," running backs coach Burton Burns said, "is our guys develop. They get better. If you come here as a five-star player, you're going to leave here as a five-star player. If you come here as a three-star player, we like to believe you'll leave here as a five-star player."
4. AJ McCarron
The Alabama junior quarterback brings a résumé into Sun Life Stadium bursting with skills below the neck and above. McCarron has led Alabama to identical 12-1 records. He's second in the nation in passing efficiency (173.08), having thrown for a school-record 26 touchdowns and only three interceptions. McCarron went into the BCS National Championship a year ago as a quarterback who had struggled against LSU and came out of the rematch with the Tigers with the Most Outstanding Player Award. His play has shown that he loves the big moments. The late, game-winning drives against LSU and Georgia are Exhibits 1 and 1-A.
A year ago, Alabama became the first team in 25 years to finish first in the four major defensive categories: scoring, total, rushing and pass efficiency. This season, despite returning only five starters, the Tide are first in total and rushing, second to Georgia in pass efficiency and second to Notre Dame in scoring. Why do people doubt the Tide defense? Because LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, top-10 teams all, combined to score 74 points. But keep in mind that the other 10 teams combined to score only 65 points. Yes, Johnny Manziel dissected the Tide defense. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is a redshirt freshman, and he can run and pass, but that's where the comparison to Manziel ends. The Irish offense is not built to pass the way that LSU and Georgia passed against Alabama.
6. Special teams
Alabama has a significant edge in the return game, with both Cyrus Jones on kickoffs (25.0-yard average) and Christion Jones on punts (10.6-yard average, plus a 99-yard kickoff return for a score against Ole Miss). Notre Dame averages fewer than 3 yards per punt return. Tide kicker Jeremy Shelley is 11-for-11 on field goals shorter than 40 yards. Speaking of which, here's something else to think about: Alabama has scored 65 touchdowns and 15 field goals. Notre Dame has scored 36 touchdowns and 24 field goals.
For all the fuss made over the difficulty of the Notre Dame schedule, Alabama reached the BCS title game against a schedule that proved just as arduous. Before the season, it appeared that the Irish would never survive a lineup that included Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and USC. Stanford and Oklahoma finished with double-digit wins. Michigan State and USC struggled to stay above .500. Notre Dame played at home against Michigan early in the season and won by seven points. Alabama opened the season at a neutral site against Michigan and won by 27 points.
Notre Dame has it in spades, and it has served the Fighting Irish well for a century. I'm not saying that Alabama has more tradition than Notre Dame, just that these programs will enter Sun Life Stadium on equal footing. Any defensive coach will tell you that the key to stopping an opponent is taking away what it does best. Because Alabama can match Notre Dame championship for championship, outsized expectation for outsized expectation, the Tide deny the Irish that advantage.
9. Fourth quarter
Kelly has said for a month that he wants to keep the game close and give the Irish a chance to win in the fourth quarter. That will be especially difficult against the Tide. It's not merely that Alabama rose up in the fourth quarter to smite LSU and Georgia. It's that Alabama takes the field in the fourth quarter with the idea of moving the sticks and running out the clock. Against its 12 FBS opponents, Alabama held the ball in the fourth quarter for an average of nearly nine minutes. Lacy and Yeldon are harder to tackle in the fourth quarter than in the first.
Alabama has every right to a sense of entitlement. Yet this team is playing for another crystal football because it lacks entitlement. "To be honest," Saban said Sunday morning, "I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations." Alabama plays with that mixture of heart and desire that every coach wants but so few develop. "When they play with a chip on their shoulder, they are hard to beat," said Scott Cochran, the strength coach and, by all acclaim, the tender of the Crimson flame. "This team is mad because everybody is doubting them. Everybody is talking bad about the defense. In January, you could hear Nico [Johnson, the linebacker] and [safety Robert] Lester talking, 'They're doubting us already.'" The team that came from behind in the final minute to win at LSU, and came from behind twice in the second half to beat Georgia, proved that it is rich in hunger. That hunger, combined with the Tide's talent and experience on the big stage, will make the difference Monday night.