Notre Dame aims to prove it can play SEC football, too

Posted Sunday, Jan. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Formula football does not guarantee national championships.

Not even in the Southeastern Conference, where teams have kept the BCS crystal football in-house for the past six seasons.

The SEC can secure an unprecedented seventh consecutive national championship tonight if No. 2 Alabama defeats No. 1 Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami.

But there will be a twist to the typical title-winning formula if the Crimson Tide, which enters as a 9 1/2-point favorite, secures its third BCS championship in the past four seasons.

That is because Notre Dame, which has an opportunity to become the first team in the BCS era to go from unranked in the preseason polls to champion at the end, has incorporated significant parts of the SEC blueprint that has led to long-term success in these matchups.

With rare exception, SEC teams that have won BCS titles in recent seasons typically leaned on a stingy defense, an under-the-radar quarterback, a deep ground game and an ability to elevate its play in the red zone, especially on defense. In this matchup, Notre Dame matches or exceeds Alabama in all of those SEC-flavored areas.

The Irish also have shown incremental improvement in getting to this season's seminal game, espousing and displaying the type of single-minded approach that has helped Alabama coach Nick Saban become the nation's most successful program-builder of the past decade.

Saban has led Alabama (2011, 2009) and LSU (2003) to BCS titles during that stretch. But Notre Dame will take a Saban-like mindset into tonight's showdown.

"We're just interested in having the very best defense we can possibly have that particular day," said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, explaining an approach that has helped Notre Dame lead the nation in scoring defense (10.3 avg.) by allowing the fewest touchdowns of any FBS school this season (10). "When you focus that kind of energy and that kind of intense, drilled-down focus on a job, we really don't spend a lot of time thinking about other things."

That is why Diaco, as well as linebacker Manti Te'o, found it difficult to identify a moment when it first seemed feasible that Notre Dame could win a national title after an 8-5 record last season.

"It wasn't a moment," said Te'o, runner-up for the 2012 Heisman Trophy. "But you could always tell this team is different. This team is willing to sacrifice a lot ... to make sure that, by the end of each day, we're better than we were at the start."

From a tangible standpoint, here is where Notre Dame has shown its share of SEC-like traits this season:

The Irish lead the nation in scoring defense, rank sixth in total defense (286.8 yards per game) and are dominant in the red zone, especially against the run. Notre Dame has allowed only two rushing touchdowns and 10 total touchdowns. Both figures are tops among the nation's 120 FBS schools, with the next closest teams at five rushing touchdowns (Brigham Young) and 17 total touchdowns (Florida).

The Irish have defended 24 running plays in goal-to-go situations. Opponents have lost a combined 28 yards on those carries (minus-1.2 per carry). That figure also leads the nation.

Alabama has a pair of 1,000-yard rushers (Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon). But those are its only two rushers with more than 300 yards. Notre Dame has four players with at least 300 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns, led by Theo Reddick (880 yards, five touchdowns) and Cierre Wood (740 yards, four touchdowns). Wood averages more yards per carry (6.7) than any running back in tonight's game.

Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron leads the nation in passing efficiency (173.1 rating) while Notre Dame starter Everett Golson ranks 62nd (131.8). But the lower-profile quarterback has stood tall during the SEC's six-year title streak, marked by losses from two Heisman winners -- Troy Smith (Ohio State, 2006) and Sam Bradford (Oklahoma, 2008) -- as well as Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy (Texas, 2009).

Notre Dame is 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including a 2-0 mark in overtime.

Notre Dame has an experienced offensive line and multiple defensive playmakers other than Te'o (seven interceptions, only two missed tackles this season). While no Alabama defender has more than 10 tackles for losses, Notre Dame has two: DE Stephon Tuitt (13) and LB Prince Shembo (10.5).

Tyler Eifert, the team's All-America tight end, agreed the Irish approach -- heavy on defense, light on mistakes -- should translate well against an SEC foe.

"We're comfortable playing that style of football," Eifert said. "And we're comfortable in close games. The more of those you win, the more comfortable you get in that situation."

Notre Dame has not lost a close game -- or any game -- this season, which concerns Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. He senses a hunger in the Irish, playing for their first national title since 1988.

"You've got to be careful about complacency. That's what we've tried to emphasize to this group," Smart said of a Tide team seeking its third BCS title in four years. "Because if they're hungrier, that's a competitive disadvantage. I know they're hungry. We've got to want it more than they want it. That's why more teams don't repeat."

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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