The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are once again back in the national championship mix. However, their opening playoff opponent for the Rose Bowl will be the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide. That would be a formidable challenge at any point this season, but coming off the Irish’s disappointing performance in the ACC title game, it’s a definite cause for concern.
Nick Saban’s team last won a national title in 2017 and enters this contest with a spotless 11-0 mark. Their high-voltage offense is averaging 49.7 points per game and has scored at least 35 points in each of the last 24 games. Finding a way to keep the Tide off the scoreboard figures to be the Irish’s primary challenge.
Below are some key matchups to watch:
QB Ian Book vs. Alabama Defense
Book has put up impressive numbers during the 2020 campaign, but against Alabama, the concept of time needs to be a central focus. More specifically, Book needs time to find receivers and not be under constant siege, like he was against Clemson. While fixing that protection issue won’t necessarily be the difference in the game, the reality is that the Irish have no chance without a strong effort.
Giving Book time will help him find the definite flaws in Bama’s defense, which allowed 46 points in the SEC title game win over Florida. While Book is likely a notch below Florida’s Kyle Trask’s talent level, he’s a smart player who can take what the Crimson Tide gives him. That very well might be in a piecemeal fashion, but the Irish will be happy if it leads to a win.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Mac Jones
Coming off their worst performance of the season, Notre Dame’s defense has to find a way to neutralize at least part of Alabama’s potent attack. They were able to shut down Clemson’s running game during the first meeting last month but watched that effort quickly unravel last week. Against a quarterback like Jones, limiting the damage he can do is one of the keys to a potential win.
Jones has thrown for over 3,700 yards this season and has four 400-yard performances this season. The Heisman finalist has only had four of his 327 pass attempts picked off and has completed 76.5 percent of his tosses. Getting pressure on Jones is paramount to any upset bid by the Irish.
MLB Drew White vs. RB Najee Harris
Despite being overshadowed by fellow linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, White has continued to deliver as the leader of the Notre Dame defense quietly. He’s made 47 stops on the year and knows how to get into enemy backfields, with 9.5 tackles-for-loss, and will definitely need another clutch performance to get the Irish to the national title game.
Harris has already surpassed most of his prolific 2019 numbers and has found the end zone 11 more times on the ground this season. Averaging 5.9 yards per carry, he’s coming off a 178-yard rushing performance in the SEC title game, so he knows how to perform on the big stage. He’s also a receiving threat if given the opportunity, with 32 grabs on the year in 2020.
WR Javon McKinley vs. CB Patrick Surtain II
After spending the previous five games collecting 28 catches and nearly 500 yards through the air, McKinley was held in check by Clemson with just three catches for 37 yards. He’s the big-play threat for the Irish, who will need to stretch the field against Alabama, with the Crimson Tide defense coming off their worst performance of the season.
Surtain is a shutdown corner whose name is likely to be called early in April’s NFL draft. The son of an 11-year NFL veteran, the younger Surtain looks to be even better than his father, who made the Pro Bowl three times. He only has one pick on the year but does enough to disrupt a passing game that he’ll be a challenge for both Book and McKinley.
CB Nick McCloud vs. WR Devonta Smith
McCloud figures to draw this rough assignment, with the expectation that the Notre Dame safeties will try to help him keep Smith in check. McCloud has only one interception this year, but the graduate transfer does lead the team with eight pass deflections, a defensive effort that he’ll need to employ throughout the game.
Smith has 98 catches on the year and came up big in the SEC championship with 15 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That was the fourth time this year that he’s broken double-digits for receptions in a game, and as the Heisman favorite, he’s no doubt looking to lock down the award with another big game against the Irish.