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January 6, 2013

Alabama, Notre Dame keys to victory

Alabama is considered the favorite going in to Sun Life Stadium, but there are five keys for both teams.

Alabama: Five keys to victory

1. Control Louis Nix on the early downs

Before Alabama's offensive line even gets to star linebacker Manti Te'o, it must first contend with Nix, a 365-pound nose guard who serves as a catalyst for the Fighting Irish's 3-4 defense in much the same way that Terrence Cody once did for Alabama. With sheer size and strength, Nix can occupy two blockers on running plays between the tackles, which allows Te'o to run to the ball-carrier more freely. At times with guard help, Alabama All-America center Barrett Jones will be tasked primarily with blocking Nix. Jones has dealt with a foot injury during bowl preparations and was not available to practice before Christmas. How well Alabama handles Nix will go a long way toward determining the success of UA's rushing attack.

2. Keep Amari Cooper involved
The Crimson Tide's dynamic freshman receiver came into his own late in the season, recording three of his four 100-yard receiving games over the last four games. He needs 105 receiving yards to be the first 1,000-yard freshman receiver in Alabama history, and one touchdown catch for his 10th of the season, which would tie a school record. Cooper is Alabama's most dangerous deep threat in the passing game. Alabama will look to not only loosen the Fighting Irish defense vertically with Cooper, but get the ball in his hands on quicker, shorter routes as well. UA went to Cooper on several quick hitch passes against Georgia on audibles called at the line of scrimmage by AJ McCarron, when McCarron noticed the Bulldogs playing too far off Cooper. If Notre Dame does the same, look for more of that.

3. Contain Everett Golson
The Fighting Irish redshirt freshman quarterback presents the Alabama defense with yet another run-pass threat in the BCS National Championship Game, something the Crimson Tide has contended with many times this season. With Johnny Manziel being a notable and glaring exception, Alabama has fared very well against running quarterbacks this season. Golson posted some of his most impressive rushing games toward the end of the season for Notre Dame, but he prefers to pass and will frequently keep his scrambling behind the line of scrimmage to extend passing plays. The Alabama pass rush might take a more disciplined approach to keep Golson throwing from the pocket. Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, the Crimson Tide's best open-field tackler, will play a big role in containing Golson's mobility.

4. Play strong red-zone offense
Statistically, Alabama's offense is significantly more prolific than Notre Dame's. Perhaps the best way for the Fighting Irish to dull that edge is forcing field goal attempts when the Crimson Tide offense reaches the red zone. And Notre Dame played red-zone defense at an elite level this season. Ranked fourth in the NCAA in that category (UA's defense was No. 2), the Fighting Irish gave up either three or no points on 21 of 33 opponents' possessions inside its 20-yard line in 2012. LSU stayed close to Alabama with just that method in last year's title game, keeping Alabama out of the end zone for the first three quarters. Alabama's offense will need to punch seven-point tickets in the Notre Dame red zone if it hopes to control the game.

5. Win third downs on defense
The struggles Alabama had defensively this season can be traced directly to third-down conversion rates. The Crimson Tide allowed third-down conversions at just a 25 percent rate through the season's first eight games. Then, over a two-game stretch that resulted in its most narrow win of the season and its only loss, LSU and Texas A&M combined to convert 55 percent of third-down chances. Despite scoring 28 points, Georgia converted just four of 12 third-down tries, a significantly better effort for Alabama's defense against one of the nation's top offenses. Notre Dame was No. 20 in the nation in third-down offense, converting 47.3 percent for the year. That was better than any team in the Southeastern Conference except Texas A&M, which led the nation at 55.4 percent.

- Compiled by Chase Goodbread

Notre Dame: Five keys to victory

1. Establish the run
This Notre Dame offense is hard-nosed and physical. That's just how the Fighting Irish need to keep it, and to do that they are going to have to find a way to move the ball on the ground to keep from playing into Alabama's hands. The Crimson Tide ranks No. 1 in the nation in run defense, allowing less than 80 yards per game and just 2.5 yards per carry. Notre Dame averages just over 200 rushing yards per game and 5 yards per carry. LSU and Georgia were able to bang out tough yards on the ground against Alabama, and Notre Dame will need to do the same. If the Fighting Irish can't find traction on the ground, Alabama will make them put the game in the hands of a young quarterback who hasn't been tested on the national championship stage.

2. Make something happen in the kicking game
Alabama's soft spot has been special teams. While kicker Jeremy Shelley and punter Cody Mandell have shown great improvement over the course of their careers and been outstanding in 2012, most of UA's biggest breakdowns have come in the kicking game. Georgia blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown, and there have been enough fumbles on punts and kickoffs to be cause for concern. Notre Dame needs to put pressure on Alabama's special teams. The Fighting Irish aren't explosive in the return game, so they will need to look for other ways to press the issue. Notre Dame should go all-out in an attempt to block a kick or find a way to strip the ball loose from a returner to gain an advantage.

3. Limit Alabama's big plays
Notre Dame's strength lies with its defense, and that defense is going to have to make Alabama work for what it gets. Running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon are capable of making breakaway runs at any time, making it crucial for the Fighting Irish to wrap up on tackles and keep UA's backs from piling up yards after contact. In the passing game, Notre Dame needs to do whatever is necessary to keep freshman phenom Amari Cooper from getting open downfield. Cooper not only leads UA in receptions, he averages an eye-popping 16.9 yards per catch with nine touchdowns. Notre Dame needs to not only keep him from catching the long ball, but also stop him from turning a short catch into a long gain.

4. Protect Everett Golson
Notre Dame's quarterback has had a solid season, especially for a redshirt freshman. He has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions and averaged 194 passing yards per game. More importantly, he has shown improvement over the course of the season. Golson has the mobility to extend plays, but he's never seen a defense like Alabama's. Notre Dame needs to give Golson time not only to keep him from taking big hits, but also so he can settle down and see the field without being pressured into making rash decisions. Alabama is good at disguising coverages and pressures, and the Notre Dame offensive line must make things as easy on the young quarterback as possible.

5. Keep the game close
The Fighting Irish have played a more-than-respectable schedule, and they have had to work to navigate the regular season with an undefeated record and No. 1 ranking. Notre Dame's victories over Purdue, Michigan, Stanford and BYU all came by margins of seven points or fewer, and that doesn't include an overtime victory over Pitt and a closer-than-the-score, 22-13 victory over Southern Cal. And while the Fighting Irish haven't been winning in dominant fashion, it is abundantly clear that this team knows how to win close games. The longer Notre Dame stays in the game and the later it goes with the outcome still undecided, the more confidence the squad from South Bend will gain. Notre Dame can't put itself in position where it has to come from behind by a large margin, and it would be best served by taking the early lead to dictate terms to UA.

- Compiled by Tommy Deas


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