BCS preview: Notre Dame's title shot finally comes into focus

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BCS preview: Notre Dame's title shot finally comes into focus

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Braxston Cave grew up a rabid Notre Dame fan, describing himself as the kind of guy who would throw his remote at the TV when things weren't going right for the Irish. The center was born two years after Notre Dame won its last National Championship, and was too young to remember the brushes with history of the early 1990's.

Cave is like every other member of Notre Dame nation. He's been waiting for this shot at a championship his whole life. Only on Monday, he'll get to have a hand in it.

"I don't think I can put that into words," Cave said. "Been waiting a long time. Not just Notre Dame, but the entire Notre Dame nation, the South Bend community, it'd be huge."

This Notre Dame team wasn't supposed to have a chance to win the school's ninth title. Nobody saw this opportunity coming, from the school's athletic director to its starting quarterback.

But here the Irish sit, one win away from the kind of glory that's eluded the program for the last quarter century. The last time this team won a title, it was Tony Rice taking snaps with the weight of Notre Dame nation on his shoulder.

"A championship for Notre Dame means you bring home the tradition," Rice said. "It's one of those things that it's hard to do, and being in an elite group of people that's done that -- shoot, you could say you did it."

For a program that lost its compass after Lou Holtz left, a win would mark a return to the "glory days," so to speak. While most Notre Dame players -- save team historian Louis Nix -- aren't aware of the specifics of their school's football past, there's a desire among these players to "get Notre Dame back to where it belongs."

That's a line that's been uttered by plenty of players over the last few weeks. Beat Alabama on Monday, and that goal will be accomplished. A win would solidify this group of players -- some hailing from the Charlie Weis era, others from Brian Kelly's early years -- as one of the best in school history.

"When you're a champion at other schools, you're a champion," Manti Te'o opined, "but when you're a champion at Notre Dame, you become a legend."

Will experience matter?

Notre Dame may have a history of championships, but not a single player on its roster was alive for the team's last title. Plenty of these players have seen pressure in high school along with a handful of games with Notre Dame. None of them have seen pressure like the BCS Championship.

For Alabama, Monday will mark the team's third appearance in a BCS Championship game in the last four years. Offensive lineman Barrett Jones played in the first two, which saw Alabama beat Texas in Pasadena and LSU in New Orleans.

"I think that's probably a little overplayed to be honest," Jones said of the experience factor. "I think certainly if it helps at all its probably from a preparation standpoint. The coaching staff has a very good idea on the best way of how to prepare with a long layoff. As far as the actual experience, once you get there, its about who plays a better game, not even who the better team is, just who plays a better game. I think thats a little overdone.

But having past championship games upon which to draw certainly won't hurt Alabama, especially if Notre Dame starts playing tight. For Notre Dame to win, they can't be overwhelmed by the moment -- which is something that's not of much concern for Alabama.

How Alabama could win

The Tide have advantages on offense and special teams over Notre Dame, while there are arguments to be made in favor of both Notre Dame and Alabama's defense as being superior.

If there's an Achilles' heel for Notre Dame, it's special teams. Even if the Irish defense shuts down running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, it may not matter if Alabama starts flipping the field through good punt or kickoff returns. It's much easier for those two backs -- and quarterback A.J. McCarron, too -- to lead Alabama to points on a 50-yard field than a 75 or 80-yard one.

For Alabama, the formula is simple: Create holes for Lacy and Yeldon and strike early. If Alabama sets the tone early with a dominant first-quarter drive, the floodgates could very well open. And if that happens, the game may be decided in the first 15 minutes.

"If you're going to play in the National Championship, you'd better start fast," Te'o said. "It's not, OK, you guys, we've got to start fast -- it's a must, especially since we're going up against a team that's really, really good."

The Jones-Nix matchup is the key to Monday's trench battle. If Jones can't handle Nix on his own, Alabama may have to double-team him, leaving Prince Shembo or Stephon Tuitt with better opportunities to get to McCarron in the backfield. Plus, if Alabama can't handle Nix, it probably means Notre Dame's doing a good job stopping the run, too.

If those holes aren't plugged up, though, Notre Dame's defense will be in trouble.

"People were talking about how do you bring down Lacy, how do you bring down those backs. You don't," Kelly said. "If there's big holes, I don't know about you guys, we ain't tackling them. We're not going to get them on the ground."

Defensively, Alabama's goal is to turn quarterback Everett Golson into a one-dimensional quarterback. If Alabama is successful in those efforts, he'll be forced to take on the Tide's secondary without the option to scramble.

"That's when he gets slowed down," safety Vinnie Sunseri explained. "He's a great athlete, a great quarterback when he's able to be mobile and get out of the pocket. If you can keep him in the pocket, that really limits him."

Another point, too: With so much time to prepare, Alabama is going to throw plenty of blitzes at Golson he's never seen on film. While Golson showed plenty of poise in the latter half of the season, if he's getting drilled or failing to check out of plays thanks to blitz packages he's totally unfamiliar with, the redshirt freshman very well could get rattled. Last time that happened, Golson threw two interceptions and was yanked in the second quarter against Michigan.

How Notre Dame could win

First and foremost, Notre Dame has to throw the initial haymaker. Cierre Wood did it against Oklahoma, gouging the Sooners' defense for a 62-yard touchdown in the first quarter.

"That takes the air out of you, when a guy splits your defense and runs for a touchdown like that coming out of the backfield, no doubt about it," Alabama defensive end Damion Square said.

Texas A&M got out to a 20-0 first-quarter lead in its upset win over Alabama in November. Notre Dame doesn't need that level of success, but a lead after 15 minutes would do wonders for the team's confidence.

From there, if Notre Dame's offense is to have any success, it'll be because Wood and Theo Riddick are able to carve out some solid gains on the ground. That way, even if Alabama contains Golson in the pocket, he'll at least have the threat of play action to throw off the Tide's secondary.

That's something far easier said than done, though.

"They don't get moved," Riddick said of Alabama's defensive line. "That's a huge problem if you can't move the front four and create holes. You just cannot become one-dimensional against this team."

Notre Dame isn't likely to win this game in a blowout. But one thing working in the team's favor is all the close games that turned into wins throughout the 2012 season -- and that creates a we've-been-here-before mentality. It's not like Alabama hasn't won close games, either (see wins vs. LSU and Georgia) but Notre Dame is more battle-tested, even if those battles were often fought against lesser competition.

If Notre Dame can stay within striking distance, they may be in good shape for a late knockdown. Coming back from a two-touchdown deficit may have worked against Pittsburgh, but chances are it won't against Alabama.

"I don't know if we're good enough to beat Alabama," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin explained, "but if we're good enough to beat Alabama, I think our kids have shown that they're a pretty resilient bunch, and they're pretty battle tested whether it be home or away."

So that's the formula: Run the ball, keep it close on defense and see if Golson can make a big play or two to turn things in Notre Dame's favor.

If Notre Dame can do that, as Nix said, "it could be a game for the ages."

Notre Dame: What Brian VanGorder set out to do, and where his defenses failed

Notre Dame: What Brian VanGorder set out to do, and where his defenses failed

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two and a half years ago, the hiring of Brian VanGorder was billed as the natural next step to take for Notre Dame's defense after the departure of Bob Diaco and his bend-don’t-break scheme.

Notre Dame’s recruiting was picking up steam entering Year 5 of the Brian Kelly era — its 2013 class was ranked by Rivals in the top five nationally — and with more athletic playmakers coming to campus, the hope was an aggressive, multiple defense stuffed with sub packages and NFL tenets could bring the Irish consistent success.

On Sunday, Kelly fired VanGorder following 30 games of inconsistent, largely ineffective defense. Looking back on what was expected of this defense — and the results that followed — it’s clear to see why that decision was made.

“We have a great base, and we have now developed what we consider a demeanor on our defense and an expectation, and now we're going to take it to the next level defensively,” Kelly said prior to spring practice in 2014, “and Brian is going to be able to take our defense to that next level.”

When Kelly hired VanGorder in January of 2014, he pointed to a few things. First, he said VanGorder was “one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around.” Second, he said VanGorder “understands player development.” Third, he pointed to VanGorder’s reams of experience, like his winning of the Broyles Award while Georgia’s defensive coordinator and his four seasons of experience as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator, too. And fourth, Kelly pointed to VanGorder being an enjoyable person to be around who’s “the right fit for me and my staff.”

Above all else, VanGorder’s defense was supposed to be fun — as in, it’s one that allows players to make plays, whereas Diaco’s defenses heavily relied on two-gapping, playing off coverage and waiting for an opposing offense to make a mistake. Diaco’s defense was a college defense; VanGorder’s was an NFL one.

There was little questioning the immediate buy-in to VanGorder's scheme. Nose guard Jarron Jones, now a fifth-year graduate student, explained back in April 2014 what the defense set out to do:

“You're part of a new defense and you're playing more to your advantage and showing off being more aggressive instead of being more disciplined," Jones said. "You're the attacker, you're not the one having to read the attacker."

So when Kelly fired VanGorder on Sunday, and pointed to a lack of “energy and enthusiasm and fun,” it represented one of the bigger shortcomings of this defense. And outside of a handful of games in 2014 and 2015, Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t the attacker — it was being attacked.

“The whole philosophy is that we don't want the offense to dictate how we play defense,” former defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said in April of 2014.

In four seasons under Diaco, Notre Dame’s defense averaged 26.3 sacks, 51.5 passes defended, 67.8 tackles for a loss and 19.8 turnovers per season — which comes out to 2 sacks, 4 passes defended, 5.2 tackles for a loss and 1.5 turnovers per game.

Over VanGorder’s 30 contests, Notre Dame’s per-game averages: 1.7 sacks, 3.7 passes defended, 3.9 tackles for a loss and 1.4 turnovers. Statistically, in no relevant aggressive area was Notre Dame’s defense better under VanGorder than it was under Diaco.

“You're gonna have some big plays but you're gonna make a lot of big plays too," Cooks said of VanGorder’s defensive expectations two years ago, "so it's a little give and take there."

Notre Dame indeed allowed more big plays under VanGorder: In total, 13 plays of 60 or more yards (0.43/game) and 64 of 30 or more yards (2.1/game). In Diaco’s four-year tenure, Notre Dame only allowed five total plays of 60 or more yards — as many as the Irish have allowed in 2016 alone — and 55 plays of 30 or more yards (1.1/game).

This isn’t to say Diaco’s defense was perfect and Notre Dame needs to go running back to something similar to it — the Irish defense ranked 48th in S&P+ in 2013 and was gouged by Michigan and Oklahoma that year. But that was far and away the worst year Notre Dame’s defense had under Diaco (in S&P+, it ranked 10th in 2010, 11th in 2011 and 8th in 2012). Notre Dame’s best year under VanGorder was 2015’s 35th-ranked defense by S&P+ — that group was stocked with captains, upperclassmen and NFL talent — and he was fired with Notre Dame sitting at No. 78 in defensive S&P+ in 2016.

A common critique of VanGorder’s system was that it was too difficult and that it threw far too much at student-athletes also balancing classwork. Players pushed back on that notion last week, as did Kelly during his teleconference on Sunday. But something had to be behind all the poor fits and blown coverages, right?

“There's not too much defense,” Kelly said. “There's probably too much analysis maybe, and we're going to streamline it and we're going to keep it fundamentally sound, certainly and we're going to allow our kids to play fast and free, and have some fun at it.”

But whatever the reasons for why this defense didn’t work, the over-arching fact of the matter was that Brian VanGorder’s defenses didn’t work. They set out to create havoc back in 2014 and fell entirely short of that goal.

Said VanGorder in March of 2014: “I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach.”

Notre Dame, outside of a few games that look like outliers on a troubling trend line, rarely controlled a game with its defense under VanGorder. It’ll have to hope Greg Hudson, or the next guy who comes into that role, can at least accomplish that.

Otherwise, those three losses in which Notre Dame scored at least 28 points could only be the beginning in what may wind up being a disastrous year in South Bend. 

Looking back at Texas in 2013 and setting Notre Dame’s defensive expectations

Looking back at Texas in 2013 and setting Notre Dame’s defensive expectations

After allowing 40 points in an embarrassing road loss at Brigham Young three years ago, Texas coach Mack Brown fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Diaz, whose defense only had one sack at the time of his firing, was replaced by a defensive analyst with coordinator experience. Sound familiar?

In-season, high-profile coordinator firings aren’t completely unheard of at the college level, but they are rare. So with Notre Dame replacing Brian VanGorder with Greg Hudson on Sunday, we can look back at Texas’ 2013 season as a rough blueprint for setting expectations for the Irish defense going forward. 

And the expectation is this: A mid-season firing of a coordinator probably won’t fix a broken defense. It didn’t necessarily do that at Texas. 

Like VanGorder’s 2015 defense, Diaz’s group in 2012 was inconsistent and prone to debilitating showings: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State all scored 40 or more points against the Longhorns, with Texas losing three of those four games in a 9-4 season. 

So with championship expectations still on Brown at Texas, and a defense clearly in regression, Brown fired Diaz — who earned $700,000, about $400,000 lower than the salary ESPN reported VanGorder earned in 2014 — just two games into the 2013 season. Here’s how Texas fared after jettisoning Diaz and promoting former Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Robinson to that post in Austin:

Lost, 44-23, vs. Ole Miss (allowed 6.24 yards per play)
Won, 31-21, vs. Kansas State (allowed 5.74 yards per play)
Won, 31-30, at Iowa State (allowed 6.01 yards per play)
Won, 36-20, vs. Oklahoma (allowed 4.46 yards per play)
Won, 30-7, at TCU (allowed 3.90 yards per play)
Won, 35-13, vs. Kansas (allowed 5.19 yards per play)
Won, 47-40, at West Virginia (allowed 4.81 yards per play)
Lost, 38-13, vs. Oklahoma State (allowed 6.13 yards per play)
Won, 41-16. vs Texas Tech (allowed 4.95 yards per play)
Lost, 30-10, at Baylor (allowed 5.52 yards per play)
Lost, 30-7, vs. Oregon (allowed 6.90 yards per play)

Texas still struggled to stop the Big 12’s most powerful offenses in Oklahoma State and Baylor, as well as Oregon in the Alamo Bowl. That win over Oklahoma certainly was impressive — the Sooners went on to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl — and this group did do better in terms of putting pressure on opposing offenses, but for the most part, Texas’ defense was still an up-and-down group. 

Its defense did well against Kansas State, Oklahoma, TCU and Texas Tech but struggled to stop Ole Miss, Iowa State and West Virginia. Robinson didn’t magically turn Texas into a reliably-competitive defense: The Longhorns finished 44th in defensive S&P+, 57th in scoring defense (25.8 PPG) and 62nd in yards per play (5.48). It wasn’t good enough to allow Texas to compete for a Big 12 championship (of course, it's worth noting Texas' offense wasn't, either). 

Notre Dame’s circumstances are different, with the Irish possessing a much better offense this year than Texas had three years ago (Case McCoy and a banged-up David Ash were largely ineffective) but less talent on defense (both Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed totaled double-digit sacks; Notre Dame only has one sack as a team through four games). 

But the lesson here is that a mid-season coordinator change shouldn’t be expected to completely fix a defense. For Notre Dame’s sake, it has to hope Hudson can, at least, inject something into this defense to marginally improve it enough to get the Irish to six wins and bowl eligibility.