An important but rarely spoken factor involving sports is belief. We’ve all heard the clichés – everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time. And while rationally it is true, how much of a difference does it make when the helmets are strapped on? I remember repeating the pants cliché to myself as I lined up at football practice against a linebacker who would eventually become all-state. I told myself we were equals again and again. As to whether or not his pants were any different than mine, I couldn’t say, as every play my face was in the dirt while he took turns chasing our quarterback or running back in the backfield.
Belief is important, and regardless of what the pundits say about Notre Dame’s chances, I have no doubt Notre Dame’s players will take the field against Alabama believing and expecting they can win. However, the points levied by pundits cannot be ignored: talent matters, and Alabama has lots of it. You don’t post a 34-5 record since 2010 or appear in your third national championship in four years without an abundance of skill. But is Alabama’s talent so superior that Notre Dame’s loss is a foregone conclusion?
One way to answer this question is to compare both teams’ starting lineups based on their recruiting rankings out of high school. Such a comparison definitely has its faults. Recruiting rankings are the definition of subjective, and every recruiting website is a bit different. And often times the rankings are far off the mark. Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert is a perfect example. Eifert, fresh off being named the best tight end in the nation, was only a Rivals 3-star out of high school. The comparison may not give a complete picture, but it at least offers one, however incomplete.
Examining both offenses, the talent gap is not as gaping as many have suggested. ESPN has been focusing on the rushing attack of the Crimson Tide headed by Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, and rightfully so – they embarrassed Georgia in the SEC Championship game by putting 350 yards on the ground. T.J. Yeldon was a Rivals 5-star, and Lacy a 4-star. How does that compare to the Fighting Irish’s rushing attack? It turns out it’s nearly a draw, though slightly favorable to Alabama. Theo Riddick was a Rivals 4-star, but Cierre Wood’s status is a tad murkier. Wood started his senior year of high school as a Rivals 5-star but was downgraded to a 4-star at the end of the recruiting cycle, a fact that angered ND fans at the time. But the fact remains: ND’s running backs were as heralded, or close, coming out of high school.
A similar story emerges when comparing offensive lines. Since Notre Dame became paired with Alabama on January 7th, one of the major stories has been whether or not the Irish could handle Alabama’s offensive line, particularly the Tide’s center, Barrett Jones. Alabama’s offensive line is mixed, boasting two Rivals 5-stars in its offensive tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker, but also a pair of 3-stars in its guards, Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen. Notre Dame’s offensive line is more balanced, boasting all Rivals 4-stars except Mike Golic, a Rivals 3-star. What’s the overall verdict? Alabama’s starting lineup has an average star rating of 4.0 compared to Notre Dame’s 3.8. The difference is so negligible that a comparison of defensive line talent is even more noteworthy.
Alabama’s defensive line is as follows: Ed Stinson (4-star), Damion Square (3-star), and Jesse Williams (4-star). This is where the biggest disparity resides. Notre Dame’s starting front is strongly ahead of Alabama’s, with Stephon Tuitt (5-star), Louis Nix (4-star) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (4-star). The average star rating for Notre Dame’s defensive line is 4.3 compared to Alabama’s 3.7.
If games are won in the trenches, Notre Dame actually owns the advantage. Adding the average star ratings of both offensive and defensive lines, the Fighting Irish hold four-tenths of a point advantage over the Crimson Tide. In fact, the ratings between both teams are very similar at a number of different positions, including linebacker, where both teams own a 4.25 average star rating.
When the numbers are crunched, the talent gap being announced by national pundits is closer to myth than reality. These findings are not meant to downplay the skill or success of the Crimson Tide over the course of the past few years – it’s merely meant to show that when the Fighting Irish line up across from Alabama on January 7th, they won’t have to repeat clichés about pants the way I once did.