ARLINGTON, Texas — Hours after the College Football Playoff selection committee cemented the top four teams, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked the million-dollar question: How do you stop or limit the Alabama offense?
Kelly equivocated, noting his staff hadn’t evaluated the Crimson Tide game plan-wise, as he had just learned his team’s fate. He ruminated on limiting big plays and ball-control offense but admitted that, following their weekly scores, “they have been a buzz saw against everybody.”
The real answer, unless you’re maybe Clemson or Ohio State — and who knows if even that’s enough? — is that there’s nothing you can do. There is no stopping or slowing down this Crimson Tide offense.
No. 4 Notre Dame learned that firsthand on Friday at AT&T Stadium, doing its best but ultimately failing to do enough to slow the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s Heisman Trophy trio, as Alabama cruised to a 31-14 win in the CFP semifinal at The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One.
In October 2012 — just months before the Crimson Tide bullied the Fighting Irish in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game — Nick Saban asked “Is this what we want football to be?” as the sport was engulfed by the spreading flames of hurry-up, no-huddle, spread offenses. Over the next few years, the college football world answered with a resounding “yes.”
This is the end result, as Saban fully embraced the philosophy. An offense with three legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates: quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and receiver DeVonta Smith (not to mention one who has been on the sideline because of injury, receiver Jaylen Waddle). You want yards, points and offense over everything? Saban obliged, and is doing it better than anyone else, with an unfair collection of offensive talent.
Eight years removed from their previous meeting, Alabama again dominated Notre Dame, but instead of physically overpowering the Irish, the Tide just ran past, around and — in Harris’ case — over them. Longtime Alabama loyalists who yearn for Saban’s old suffocating defenses might quibble with how many yards and points the Tide have given up this season, but even they can be pleased with this defensive performance, which held Notre Dame under 400 yards.
To be clear: Notre Dame did a better job than any other Alabama opponent this season. Kelly, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and staff utilized their time well, holding the Crimson Tide to a season-low in points. The 437 yards Alabama tallied was its second-lowest total of the season. The Fighting Irish (10-2) even frustrated Alabama’s running game in the second half, holding the Tide to just 3.3 yards per rush.
But never was there a point Friday when it seemed like Notre Dame would do enough to win. Once Alabama figured that out, the Tide adjusted their offensive attack to something more familiar to Saban.
“We tried to take the air out of the ball,” Saban said. “We didn’t run the ball very successfully in the second half.”
Friday’s semifinal started in predictable fashion. The Tide raced to a two-touchdown lead, and Heisman candidate No. 3, Harris, dropped jaws as he hurdled over Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud, leading many to wonder if the game would even be competitive. To Notre Dame’s credit, it seemed so for a moment. The eight-minute drive halved the lead, and though a missed field goal attempt near end of the first half left them with a 21-7 deficit, the Irish still appeared to have a flicker of hope as the third quarter began.
Inevitably, Heisman candidate No. 2 (Jones) and Heisman candidate No. 1 (Smith) proved too much to handle. The two connected seven times for 130 yards and three touchdowns. We’ll find out on Tuesday which of those two finalists (or Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence or Florida quarterback Kyle Trask) take home the Heisman, though to anyone who has watched closely this season, it’s hard to figure someone more deserving than Smith, who leads the country in receptions and receiving yards and touchdown catches.
“Smitty has done as much for our team as any other player who did win the Heisman Trophy,” Saban said. “It would be a tremendous honor for him if that happened.”
Aside from the hurdle, Harris still finished with 125 rushing yards and 8.3 yards per rush. Jones was 25-of-30 passing, was just shy of 300 yards and threw four touchdowns with no interceptions, content to take check downs and move the chains when Notre Dame dropped into coverage. For this to be Alabama’s new way of “winning ugly,” it’s still quite productive.
“We definitely have a lot to clean up,” Jones said. “We got to take advantage of every play. … A team like that, that’s what they kind of wanted to do, is keep us off the field. I think they probably did a good job.”
Saban harped on finishing better and knows they’ll have to fine tune before the national championship game.
“I think you have to be able to play every style,” Saban said. “I think that if people get a bead on you in terms of what is successful against you, you don’t have answers for it, then everybody’s going to do it and they’re going to take a lot of things away.”
It might not have been a 60-point outbreak, but in the playoff, that was unlikely. Even at less than its best, this Tide offense is lethal. Clemson and Ohio State operate in a similar talent stratosphere to the Crimson Tide, and that gives them a better chance against this historic collection of talent than Notre Dame had on Friday.
But if they’re looking for ways to stop Alabama, they can save the effort. The strategy Notre Dame employed Friday was helpful, but not enough. Their best bet might simply be trying to keep up, turning it into the kind of shootout Saban cautioned against eight years ago. This isn’t what he wanted football to be, but he’s on the verge of winning a national championship that way.