/Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Rose Bowl 2021: Five keys to help you pick the playoff semifinal game – CBS Sports

Alabama vs. Notre Dame, Rose Bowl 2021: Five keys to help you pick the playoff semifinal game – CBS Sports

The 2021 Rose Bowl semifinal looks more like a one-sided nonconference game to open the season. No. 1 Alabama is a 20-point favorite over No. 4 Notre Dame entering the game, according to William Hill Sportsbook, which is the largest spread in the history of the College Football Playoff.

A big win for Alabama would be the only normal thing about the Granddaddy being moved to North Texas. It’s going to be weird watching the Rose Bowl in The House That Jerry Built. There will be Miller Lite signs instead of the San Gabriel Mountains. The famous sunset? Maybe if it’s portrayed on that giant AT&T Stadium video board. The Rose Bowl was moved due to COVID-19 issues in Southern California that would not allow fans – even family members and friends – to attend the game. Everybody made sacrifices this season. The CFP is no different.

Star power is not lacking in this Rose Bowl. The game is likely to feature the Heisman Trophy winner. (Alabama has two finalists and three of the top five vote-getters.) It absolutely is featuring the Butkus Award winner (best linebacker) as well as 10 other All-Americans combined on the two teams.

Alabama is expected to coast to its fifth CFP National Championship in seven seasons … but will it? The only way this season is a success for the Tide is if they win it all. Alabama is not only in competition with Notre Dame but with itself as well. The championship standard in the Nick Saban era started with the 2009 bunch. That was Saban’s only undefeated team. This one is headed that way if it can get past this pesky CFP field.

“It’s almost like you’re not really playing the guys Alabama has [on the roster],” said Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, that Butkus winner. “It’s almost like you’re playing the franchise.”

How true. Let’s look at keys to the game as the Fighting Irish attempt to take down that Crimson Tide franchise on Friday night.

1. Big spread creates potential for big upset

Given that Notre Dame is a 20-point underdog, it is therefore positioned to potentially earn the biggest upset in CFP history. Coach Brian Kelly, for one, believes the Irish have arrived even if they have shown a propensity for losing when the light gets brightest. “I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up,” he said this week. This being Notre Dame, the standards are different, so there is some work to be done. Clemson exposed Notre Dame in their ACC Championship Game rematch, and there is a team speed disparity in this game, too.

However, a win would truly wake up the echoes putting the Irish within one game of first national championship in 32 years. To get to the point of an upset, Kelly must first convince his team they are capable of the upset. Notre Dame still owns the biggest win of the season over then-No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. That was in South Bend, Indiana, on a night when Clemson was missing several defensive starters and quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Alabama is loaded. If Notre Dame has any sort of leverage, it’s that it is what Alabama used to be — run-based, defensive-minded and willing to play field position with an experienced quarterback in a short passing game. That might be enough to jam up the Tide’s gears. An upset probably involves a defensive/special teams touchdown to swing momentum. Then, watch out. Maybe. The Irish are seventh nationally in time of possession.

For this to happen, Alabama must be a willing participant. That’s another way of saying it must play down to the level of Notre Dame with turnovers and mistakes, which are completely out of character. That’s what happened to Clemson the regular-season loss. It was beat up and got behind. That’s how an upset begins to take shape.

Alabama has scored at least 35 points in 24 straight games. If Notre Dame can get going some sort of bully ball, then it might have a chance. A Notre Dame win would be historic for another reason. It would mark the most wins (44) over a four-year span. “We have to keep in mind we’re a great team too,” safety Kyle Hamilton said.

2. Alabama’s third-down success is unrivaled

The Tide are winning games by more than 30 points. A championship rematch with Clemson seems inevitable for Alabama, but perhaps Notre Dame can find some success on that money down. Alabama is leading the nation converting almost 60% of its third downs. If that holds, it will be highest rate nationally in at least 11 years.

Defensively, Notre Dame is sixth nationally allowing only 29% of third downs to be converted. Something has to give. Alabama is the nation’s second-highest scoring team averaging an impressive 1.62 points per minute of possession.

3. Tide’s triplets may not need to dominate

Former Alabama center Barrett Jones brought it up to me a couple of weeks ago. It’s possible the Tide have the best quarterback (Mac Jones), wide receiver (DeVonta Smith) and running back (Najee Harris) in the game. Certainly, a case can be made. The thing is that Alabama can still win this game without those three being at 100%.

WR John Mechie III could start for anyone in the country. Harris has proven himself more than an adequate receiver and pass blocker. Jones’ “worst” game this season was arguably against Arkansas. The Razorbacks decided they were going to take away the deep pass. For only the second time this season, Jones didn’t throw a touchdown. He threw for a season-low 208 yards. Alabama won by 49.

“We’ve defended teams with one or two pieces,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said.  “The compliment I’d give to Alabama is it’s a strong unit. You have to account for the best player but it’s not just one guy.”  

4. By the Book

We’ve gotten this far and failed the mention of the Notre Dame’s underrated threat at quarterback. Senior Ian Book (30-4) trails only Lawrence in career wins by active quarterbacks. Only Brady Quinn has more passing yards at Notre Dame. Only Tony Rice has more rushing yards by an Irish QB.

Book is underrated as a thrower, runner and a leader. He’ll be overshadowed by Jones, no doubt. But in a league loaded with star quarterbacks, Book was the quiet, efficient standard. Look for him to go deep on early downs. Book enters with a ratio of 15 passing touchdowns to two interceptions, and he’s scored four or more touchdowns in a single game twice this season.

5. Defense can lead the way

If Notre Dame is going to win, the defense shaped by a 38-year-old former Vanderbilt fullback will be one of the main reasons. Notre Dame is Lea’s sixth stop as an assistant coach since starting at South Dakota State 14 years ago. That starts with holding Alabama to something less than its 49.7-point average. Whenever the season ends, Lea — in his third season as defensive coordinator — will matriculate to become Vanderbilt’s head coach.

Lea will leave having built back-to-back top 20 defenses for the Irish. Against Alabama, the Notre Dame defensive line will play smash mouth with perhaps the best offensive line in the country. Its corners better get used to playing physical press coverage against the Alabama receivers. Hamilton, one of those All-Americans, holds it all together from his spot in the back. “Kyle makes an impact just by being on the field. Teams plan around him. When he plays his best he becomes a difference maker for us,” cornerback Nick McCloud said.

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