There have been plenty of firsts in the 2020 college football season. We’ll add one more item to that list: the Alabama Crimson Tide are favored by 19.5 points over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the largest spread in the College Football Playoff history.
Needless to say, the Fighting Irish, despite going undefeated until the ACC Championship Game, will have to play their best game of the season if they hope to reach the National Championship Game.
Based on the way the Crimson Tide has played this season, Notre Dame will have to be close to perfect. Specifically, here are five things the Fighting Irish must do just to have any chance of overcoming a nearly three-touchdown spread and beating Alabama.
Win the Line of Scrimmage
If not win, then the Fighting Irish at least need to hold their own in the trenches against Alabama.
On offense, the Notre Dame offensive line has been exceptional all season, paving the way for Kyren Williams to rush for over 1,000 yards. While the Irish have a veteran and trustworthy quarterback in Ian Book, everything they do offensively is contingent on being able to run the ball effectively. A one-dimensional Notre Dame offense isn’t going to cut it, so the Notre Dame offensive line needs to create running lanes for Williams. That group struggled in the ACC Championship Game, limiting Williams to just 50 yards and the Irish to 10 points.
On the other side of the ball, the Notre Dame defensive line also needs to hold its own. That’ll be easier said than done with Najee Harris gaining over 1,200 yards and Mac Jones being sacked just 10 times in 11 games.
The good news for the Irish is that few teams have run the ball against them successfully this year. They slowed down Travis Etienne in the first contest against Clemson and even held North Carolina, a team with two 1,000-yard rushers, under 100 yards rushing. However, replicating those results against Alabama will be one of Notre Dame’s biggest challenges.
Touchdowns, Not Field Goals
This is a given in every big game, but it’s particularly important against an Alabama team that’s averaging close to 50 points per game. The Notre Dame defense is good enough to keep the Crimson Tide well below their season average. But there’s no question that the Fighting Irish need to be prepared for a shootout.
Scoring touchdowns instead of field goals will be imperative for the Irish to pull off the upset. This was a huge problem for the Irish in the ACC Championship Game. During their first three drives, Notre Dame scored on a long field goal, missed a short field goal and turn the ball over on downs inside the Clemson 30-yard line. Three points from those three drives weren’t early enough to keep the Irish in the game once the Clemson offense started to get rolling.
The Alabama offense is just as capable of striking quickly and not finishing drives is the best way for Notre Dame to fall behind early and become one-dimensional, which is something they can’t afford.
Be Sound in the Kicking Game
Granted, the Irish don’t want to settle for too many field goals in this game, but if they have to kick field goals, they better make them. Jonathan Doerer missing a 24-yard attempt in the first quarter was a huge psychological hit to Notre Dame early in the game. On the season, Doerer missed seven of his 22 field goal attempts, converting just 68% of them. He can’t afford to miss any kicks against Alabama, especially since Brian Kelly appears to be losing faith in him.
Of course, being sound in the kicking game means more than just converting field goal attempts. Fortunately, Notre Dame punter Jay Bramblett has had a good season and can help the Irish win the field position battle. However, the Crimson Tide can be dangerous in the return game, even without Jaylen Waddle.
Stopping the Alabama offense will be challenging enough, Notre Dame can’t allow Alabama to score points on special teams.
Contain DeVonta Smith
It’d be foolish to think that Notre Dame can stop Smith completely. He has racked up over 1,500 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns in 11 games, making himself a Heisman finalist. When Waddle was lost to a season-ending injury, Smith answered the call and has stepped up his performance despite it being easier for opposing defenses to focus on stopping him. He’s scored 13 of his 17 touchdowns in the last six games and burned Florida for 184 yards on 15 catches.
The Fighting Irish will do their best to keep Smith somewhat contained with cornerbacks Clarence Lewis and Nick McCloud. That duo is never going to prevent Smith from making an impact in the game. However, they need to make sure Smith doesn’t get behind the defense and gain huge chunks of yards or score touchdowns longer than 50 yards.
The Notre Dame defense should be prepared to bend a little against Alabama. Forcing long drives will be their best chance of staying within striking distance of Bama. But if the Irish allow Smith to hurt them on long touchdown catches, Alabama will literally run away with the game.
Avoid Unforced Errors
Perhaps more than anything else, the Fighting Irish can’t afford to hurt themselves with unforced errors. This includes everything from botched snaps to careless turnovers to undisciplined penalties. No matter how impressive they were while going 10-0 during the regular season, the Irish are considerable underdogs in this game and will have to play a perfect game to have a chance against Alabama. Bama is likely to punish Notre Dame for any self-inflicted mistakes, making the Irish’s path to victory even more narrow than it already is for a 19.5-point underdog.
Ultimately, Notre Dame needs to hold their own in the trenches, not settle for field goals, be mistake-free in the kicking game, limit Smith’s damage, and don’t give the Crimson Tide the chance to capitalize on unforced errors. If the Fighting Irish can accomplish those five things, they’ll have a fighting chance to pull off the upset over Alabama. But if the Irish fail in those five areas, the Crimson Tide is going to roll to yet another national championship game.
Photo: Getty Images