BCS Title Game
It's here. This may not have been the game everyone was hoping for, but that doesn't matter now. Notre Dame is undefeated and playing in this game for a reason. While Alabama are hands-down favorites to win straight up, the Fighting Irish are seeing a lot of action from bettors. Like last year's game, this one will feature two defensive heavy squads. Alabama is favored by -10 at 5 Dimes Sportsbook with a total of 41.5.
The numbers for these schools are straight to the point. Notre Dame has the best defense in the nation in most categories while Alabama is right behind them. The Fighting Irish do not get into shootouts. Every game they play tends to be low-scoring and close - as long as the opponent is halfway decent.
It's not a secret that Notre Dame has not lost all season and sport a 12-0 record. Their hardest games have actually been at South Bend. Away from home, they handled Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC for the most part. Those are not easy teams to beat on the road. At home, the Irish barely beat Purdue at the beginning of the year, fought with Michigan, went to overtime with Stanford, beat a weak BYU team by three points and went to three overtimes with Pittsburgh. That basically sums up their season. They would bend, but they would never break, showing the ability to finish games.
Alabama could almost fit that same mold except they lost to Texas A&M because of a goal line interception. They still have a couple late-game victories. One of them came at LSU in what looked like a for sure loss until AJ McCarron decided he could throw the ball with ease. Their last win of the season came in the SEC Championship game over Georgia, 32-28. Even though they play in the SEC, they haven't had the toughest of schedules, only facing four SEC teams that are in bowl games. Against those better teams, the Crimson Tide have struggled. They were down against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. The one advantage they do have is experience having won three of the last four BCS title games.
While their defense is highly touted, they have gotten beat against better competition. The Aggies scored 29 on them while Georgia managed 28 points in a loss. Notre Dame may be a defensive-minded team, but they can still score. McCarron will have to bring his A-game to be able to top the best defense he's faced all season. He actually has the best QB rating in the country, but that's not all that important on a run heavy team. He has an unbelievable 26 TD to three INT ratio, but he only has 2,669 yards. In Alabama's only loss, McCarron threw for his most yards of the season, but he actually threw two INTs to just one TD. Wide receiver Amari Cooper has double the output (53 catches, 895 yards, nine TDs) of any other Crimson Tide player and will be heavily involved in the passing game. Their ground game is what makes the offense work. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon both have 1,000 yards which is something you don't see often coming out of the same backfield. The two have combined for 27 touchdowns.
Manti Te'o will be a big factor in this game and will try to live up to all his potential as a Heisman candidate. Can a defensive player come through in the title game and change the result in his team's favor? It's very possible, but will take a lot of work.
If Notre Dame has a problem, it's been their offense. They run a very similar set to that of Alabama, yet are a notch below. QB Everett Golson doesn't have huge games, but like McCarron doesn't need them with this team. His 11 TD to five INT ratio is a little worrisome and one of the main reasons they don't even average 27 points per game as a team. Tight end Tyler Eifert will be key in this game, especially in the red zone. Not only does he lead the team in receptions and yards, but also has four TDs (tied for most on the team). Most of the running game will go through Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. The two have combined for 1,620 yards and nine TDs on the year.
When we handicap a football game, we use a variety of methods to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the teams involved. We use straight forward power ratings which we have been keeping for 25 years, we use a variety of stats we feel are predictive and we use our college football prediction model. We're coming up with our own number on the games, and then considering additional factors such as weather and motivation. When all is said and done, we either have a play on a game or we don't. If we have a play, we expect to win that play somewhere between 55% and 58% of the time. We mention this to stress that a play is a play is a play. Doesn't matter if it's a week 1 game between to MAC schools or the BCS Title game between Notre Dame and Alabama.
That being said, Notre Dame comes up as a play any way you slice it. Let's see, where can we start. How about this. With all the talk of Alabama and the SEC and how brutal an SEC schedule is, they actually played a schedule that was identical in strength to that of Notre Dames. In fact, using our power ratings, Alabama played 3 teams ranked lower than ANY of the opponents Notre Dame faced all year (according to our ratings). Those teams were Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina.
Alabama played 3 teams all year that were rated as highly as Notre Dame, using our power ratings. Those teams were LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. While Bama was 2-1 in those games, they could have just as easily gone 0-3.
Our biggest play of this season was Notre Dame +10.5 over Oklahoma and this game against Alabama is very similar to that game at the end of October. Heading into that one, all we heard was how fast Oklahoma was, how Notre Dame wouldn't be able to deal with their size and speed and so on. Yet, our numbers suggested the game to be very close. In fact our model predicted a 15-15 score which suggested Notre Dame could even win. Well, we all know what happened. Final score, Notre Dame 30-13, on the road.
Let's talk yards per point numbers and remember, these numbers are against the same level of competition. Alabama has a 4 point edge offensively with a very good 11.4 compared to ND's 15.7. That's significant although it's countered by Notre Dames NCAA best 27.9 defensive number, one of the best we have ever seen and almost 7 points better than Alabama's number of 22.9. Still, those defensive numbers are #1 and #2 in the nation. If you question whether Notre Dame can handle the Alabama offense, consider that Oklahoma's offensive yards per point number heading in to their game with the Irish was 10.9.
Consider this also. Oregon is the #2 team in the land when using the offensive yards per point stat. A blistering 10.8. It was said that they couldn't be stopped. Yet, Stanford stopped them and beat them. Well, guess who beat Stanford? Right, Notre Dame.
When using season to date stats, our model says Alabama wins this 13-11. When using stats from the last 5 games only, it comes up Alabama 17-14 and when using the last 7 games, it comes up 17-13, once again Alabama. So the model says Alabama will be the BCS National Champion but it also suggests that getting +10 with the Irish is enough to get the cover.
Now, we can write this game up to appear as though Notre Dame is a mortal lock. It's easy enough to do, considering the material we have to work with for this game. But let's be realistic here. We like Notre Dame but understand completely what they are up against. I can't say we'd be shocked beyond belief if Alabama rocked the Irish in blow out fashion. It could happen.
But what do we think will happen? Well, we think Notre Dame finds a way to win this game straight up. They have seemed to play to the level of their competition all year, struggling with a team like Pitt yet blowing the doors off of the Sooners. Alabama has had their troubles against "good" teams this year, which Notre Dame certainly is and we have pointed out that they have played schedules that were the same in strength. It should be a good one. We don't see this as a lopsided affair worthy of a 10 point spread. Notre Dame +10