The two storied programs arrived in South Florida on Wednesday, with Notre Dame in search of their first national championship since 1988, and Alabama looking to become the first ever program to win back-to-back BCS championships.
The Crimson Tide enter the game as 10-point favorites against a Notre Dame program that has lost 10 of their last 12 bowl games, but the Fighting Irish offer some interesting possibilities to pull off an upset.
A key matchup will be the Alabama offensive line against the Notre Dame defensive line. The two lines might be each program’s strongest units.
The Tide welcome back All-American center Barrett Jones, who has practiced just twice since injuring his left foot against Georgia in the SEC Championship on Dec. 1. Jones said he intends to play, and is expected to go head-to-head with gargantuan nose tackle Louis Nix III, whose eccentric and amiable personality is matched only by his ferocious play on the gridiron.
"He's pretty big," Jones said, of Nix. "He's got great size to him, but he's got really good foot quickness to him for a guy that big. He does a really good job with his hands. He's probably the best nose guard I've played all season."
It won’t be easy for Nix and the stellar line that is composed of star defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Stephon Tuitt. ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer called Alabama’s offensive line the best in the nation, and senior guard Chance Warmack the best player in college football.
But the Fighting Irish are not composed of just a strong front four. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s unit boasts a linebacker that finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. Manti Te’o is considered one of the most dynamic defensive players in recent memory, and is expected to be an early first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The senior will be playing his last college game, and poses a serious obstacle for the Crimson Tide running game that boast two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon.
Diaco's defense ranks first nationally in points allowed (10.33), sixth in total yardage (286.8) and fourth against the run, and while many would love to heap most of the credit on Te’o, an under-rated secondary have also exceeded expectations to get Notre Dame in the title game.
The Crimson Tide also have one of the best defensive players in the nation, as Dee Milliner has shined in 2012. The junior cornerback is regarded as the best defensive back in the nation, and will be called upon to help contain Notre Dame wide out TJ Jones, who caught 43 passes on the season.
A large burden will also fall on the shoulders of the quarterbacks. Notre Dame received a pleasant surprise in the steady play of redshirt freshman Everett Golson. In a run-heavy offense, Golson passed for an impressive 2,135 yards and 11 touchdowns with five interceptions. He also rushed for 305 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games. While running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have received much of the praise on offense, Golson remains an intriguing figure for his composure and all-around play. How the 19-year-old performs under the heavy spotlight may be a large factor in the final outcome.
A.J. McCarron enjoyed another strong season, as the junior increased his passing yards and touchdown total from 2011, and threw just three interceptions all season. McCarron didn’t receive much Heisman attention in 2012, but his consistency was vital to Alabama’s success. He has also emerged as the leader that the Tide offense needed, according to his center.
“A.J. grew up more in the past year than any other player on the team,” Jones told NBC Sports. “He became more of a vocal leader and more confident in his checks (at the line of scrimmage). … He’s had a lot of poise in big situations.”
While the Crimson Tide are back in the title game and favored to repeat, Texas A&M proved that the SEC champions are not invincible. At home against the Aggies on Nov. 20, Alabama conceded 20 first-quarter points and turned the ball over three times in their lone loss of the season.
Head coach Brian Kelly has no doubt spent a great deal of time analyzing how the Aggies were able to finish with 418 total yards and force Alabama to punt the ball four times.
Nick Saban has a reputation for exposing his opponents’ weaknesses, and the Alabama head coach may point to how Notre Dame failed to dominate weaker competition like Purdue, BYU, and Pittsburgh.
But the Irish find a way to win, and it’s a fact that is probably not lost on Saban.
"We overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes," Kelly said after edging Pittsburgh in triple overtime on Nov. 3. "Last year that would have been a loss. But our team kept fighting, kept playing."
How underdog Notre Dame fight on Monday will likely be the difference in a season that will be looked back on with storybook lore, or another example of coming up just short.
Betting Odds: Alabama favored by 10, with an over/under of 40.5
Prediction: The Crimson Tide jump out to an early lead, but are slowed by a Notre Dame defense that make the right adjustments. The Fighting Irish running game will eventually break down the tough Crimson Tide defense, but it won’t be enough against an Alabama squad that is both deep and talented.
Predicted Score: Alabama over Notre Dame, 23-10.