Monday (1/7) 8:30 pm EST on ESPN
Alabama vs Notre Dame, BCS National Championship
Football tradition, anyone? As much as I bet against Notre Dame throughout the season, I am happy to see them in this game since both teams project plenty of talent to the NFL. For someone that had to win the positional battle during the offseason, sophomore QB Everett Golson has really stepped up to help lead this offense up and down the field. Golson is a creative player that flashes from inside the pocket, although he seems most comfortable buying time with his feet to find open receivers downfield. It will be critical for the long and developing redshirt sophomore OLB Adrian Hubbard (#42/6'6/248) to extend on the edge, keep his outside arm free, and hold contain to force Golson to stick inside a closing pocket. That goes double for Bama's end duo, including DE Damion Square (#92/6'3/282) and junior DE Ed Stinson (#49/6'4/282). The fourth in that group, DE Quinton Dial (#90/6'5/304), is much more of a run stopper than pass rusher, so his impact could be limited in that situation. T Zack Martin (#70/6'4/304) could have his hands full, as each of the Crimson Tide edge rushers present their own strengths and weaknesses. NT Jesse Williams (#54/6'3/320) is excellent against the run due to his strength at the point of attack to anchor and shed. However, Williams flashes an interior pass rush, so if he can keep C Braxston Cave (#52/6'3/305) on skates and press the pocket, it could really disrupt the flow of the Notre Dame offense.
In terms of skill position players, Notre Dame RB/WR Theo Riddick (#6/5'11/200) had a very strong season compared to preseason expectations. We think Riddick's future is at wide receiver, but he continues to make plays from a variety of alignments. Between the tackles, LB Nico Johnson (#35/6'2/245) is one of the best run defenders in the country, but he is a bit of a one trick pony. Irish junior RB Cierre Wood (#20/6'0/215) is likely to leave for the NFL, but his name continues to get lost in the shuffle at the position. He could have a statement game tonight, breaking tackles at the line or the second level with lateral cuts to find open space. We were surprised when junior LB C.J. Mosley (#32/6'2/232) said he was staying for his senior year, because his blend of proficiency and comfort in coverage, speed to close, and willingness to get physical is a combination teams will love. The junior is the best linebacker in this game. He will surely be asked to acknowledge TE Tyler Eifert (#80/6'5/252) in both man and zone situations. We wouldn't be surprised if Eifert is pressed at the line by junior CB Dee Milliner (#28/6'1/198) at times, or bracketed by S Robert Lester (#37/6'2/210). No one goes up and high points the football like Eifert, and the future pro consistently hauls in catches despite contact. Milliner is extremely physical for the position but may be needed for outside targets. Lester is the real wildcard here, and even though he has a big name, the senior gives up too many plays that take up large chunks of the field due to poor angles and busted assignments. A consistent game from the safety could really help the Crimson Tide.
There may be no better unit in college football than Alabama's offensive line. C Barrett Jones (#75/6'4/305) has been held back due to a foot injury throughout the preparation process, but promises he will play. He could not have picked a more difficult matchup, as redshirt sophomore NT Louis Nix (#9/6'3/326) would be one of the first defenders drafted this season if he declared. Our biggest question with Jones is if he has the hand speed and strength to immediately anchor against nose tackles in a three man front, so tonight's game will go a long way towards answering that question. Jones is a smart positional blocker, but he hasn't faced a player with Nix's talent this season. Alabama's best player up front is G Chance Warmack (#65/6'2/323), who could draw our highest grade among senior prospects. Not only is Warmack extremely strong in the running game, he can move well for his squatty size to hit second level targets. Warmack has occasionally been beat while trying to mirror laterally, something that could cause him problems tonight. To round out the offensive line, junior T D.J. Fluker (#76/6'6/335) is a powerful blocker on the edge that really struggles at times with foot quickness to keep up with speed rushers. He will see snaps across from another stud 2013 prospect, sophomore DE Stephon Tuitt (#7/6'6/303), and a changeup in junior LB Prince Shembo (#55/6'2/250). Both use their hands well, but if Fluker gets in position with a balanced base, he is a very formidable blocker in the mold of Phil Loadholt.
What a year it has been for ILB Manti Te'o (#5/6'2/255). The senior has greatly improved his game since 2011, especially in coverage and his range on plays to the edge. Although we wouldn't rank him near the top 10 in terms of defensive players this season, we expect Te'o to be a first-round selection that can solidify the interior of any defense. He'll most certainly meet junior RB Eddie Lacy (#42/5'10/220) in the hole and the second level. Both players pack a punch on contact, so we may see sparks created on impact. We don't think TE Michael Williams (#89/6'5/272) gets enough credit for the kind of prospect he is. These days, a proficient inline blocking tight end is somewhat rare, and Williams is very reliable as an edge setter. He may not be the fastest, but Williams has consistent hands to pick up first downs on play action targets where he slips off the end of the line. Notre Dame S Zeke Motta (#17/6'2/215) is reliable in his assignments and could make the most of junior QB AJ McCarron's (#10/6'3/210) mistakes. At one point in the season, some believed McCarron had taken the next step, shedding the game manager label, but a few questionable or average performances quickly changed that idea. As usual, we expect the Tide to frequently run the ball, with play action, screens, and vertical shots to Amari Cooper mixed in. However, if they can't consistently pick up three or four yards on the ground, McCarron could be asked to do more than he is used to.
Other Prospects To Watch
junior G Anthony Steen (#61/6'3/303)
junior H-back Jalston Fowler (#45/6'0/242) out
WR Kevin Norwood (#83/6'1/195)
G Mike Golic (#57/6'3/295)
DE Kapron Lewis-Moore (#89/6'4/306)