- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Brian Kelly couldn't help but laugh at the question
"In the initial stages of analyzing the opponent, what has kept you up at night?" the reporter asked the Notre Dame head coach at a news conference last week.
"Are you kidding me?" a stunned Kelly asked in return, arching his eyebrows. "Really?"
The answer was "everything about them," he said, from the way Alabama is coached to the players it puts on the field.
"They are not going to beat themselves," he continued. "You're going to have to beat them and that's an uphill challenge."
Alabama and Notre Dame will go head-to-head on Jan. 7 for the BCS national championship in Miami. Between now and then there will be many sleepless nights for both coaches.
For UA coach Nick Saban, rest has never been easy to come by. The Fighting Irish are just the excuse to get out from under the covers.
"It gives me something to worry about, but they have plenty to worry about," Saban said. "I think the first thing is they are a great defensive team, fantastic front seven, very physical, great size and play exceptionally well together as a team."
Notre Dame has one of the best defenses in the country. The Irish are No. 1 in points allowed and are in the top 10 in rushing and total defense this season. Linebacker Manti Te'o was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and the starting defensive line averages 312 pounds. If there's a better defensive front in the country, Saban hasn't found it.
The national title game could become a battle of wills as Notre Dame is seemingly built to stop Alabama's offense, which averages a sturdy 38.5 points and 439.1 yards per game.
The Crimson Tide have struggled to protect the quarterback, most recently against Georgia, which forced offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to run the ball repeatedly in the SEC championship game. Notre Dame is stout in both areas on defense. The Irish are 14th in the country in sacks with 34 overall. And with so much size up front, running the ball is no easy task, either. Notre Dame gives up less than 100 yards on the ground per game.
"There's some pretty physical guys that have some great toughness and great licks," Saban said. "They play great as a team."
Outside of Notre Dame's physical play, here are four key areas that might keep Saban up at night in the weeks leading up to his team's trip to South Beach:
1. Moving the football: It will be an uphill battle for Alabama's offense, and Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix could be the key to the whole equation. The 6-foot-3, 326-pound stopgap has been a terror all season. Much like UA's nose guard Jesse Williams, Nix doesn't have the stats, but remove him from the equation and gaining yards becomes much easier.
As mentioned earlier, protecting the quarterback and regaining some semblance of balance on offense will be important for Nussmeier. Injured center Barrett Jones is expected to be healthy in time for practice next week, but if he's not, the offense could be in for major issues as everything is predicated on what happens up front. Alabama's most effective when it's running the ball well and can pass off of play action.
2. Stopping Tyler Eifert: Alabama has not faced a tight end the likes of Eifert all season, and that's because he's arguably the best player at his position in the country. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound senior is Notre Dame's biggest weapon on offense. He has the ability to catch the ball over the middle as well as stretch the field deep with his good speed as he averages 14.2 yards per reception.
The question for Alabama is how exactly to cover him. Linebackers Nico Johnson (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) and Adrian Hubbard (6-foot-6, 248 pounds) match up best in terms of size but neither has the athleticism to stay with Eifert for long. C.J. Mosley is the only linebacker with enough quickness to do that, but he's a mismatch at just 6-foot-2. What Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart might choose is to have Johnson and Hubbard chip at the line of scrimmage and then have safety Robert Lester try to cover Eifert once he hits the second level of the defense. If things get hairy, cornerback Dee Milliner (6-foot-1, 199 pounds) might even get called on for support.
3. Making Everett Golson one-dimensional: It's been well documented how much trouble Alabama has had with dual-threat quarterbacks, most recently the ultra-elusive Johnny Manziel. While Golson isn't the same type of talent in terms of running or throwing the football as the Heisman Trophy winner, he does present challenges in his ability to extend the play and flee the pocket with his feet. The freshman has tucked the ball and run 89 times this season, gaining 406 yards and five touchdowns.
The challenge for Alabama's defense will be keeping Golson contained and forcing him to throw. UA had success in the season-opener against Michigan's Denard Robinson following that formula by running controlled blitzes at the quarterback, trying to affect his ability to run and pass rather than going for the sack every time.
4. Getting AJ McCarron back on track: Blame it on an ineffective offensive line, injuries at receiver or late-season fatigue, but the fact of the matter is Alabama's starting quarterback has not been himself for some time now. Ever since the LSU game, the junior hasn't played up to the standard he set in the weeks and months prior to the Tide's trip to Death Valley. The very next week, his streak of pass attempts without an interception was broken at home. In his last three games against ranked opponents, McCarron has thrown three touchdowns to three interceptions and completed 58.5 percent of his passes.
Confidence isn't an issue with McCarron, but there's something about his body language that doesn't sit right. He's had happy feet in the pocket at times and held on to the ball too long. For Alabama to be successful against Notre Dame's stout defense, the old McCarron, the gun-slinger who exuded confidence and poise in the pocket, will need to make a triumphant return.
3hMichael C. Wright