Alabama vs. Notre Dame: Who Will Win This Year’s Championship?

by Bruno Velloso

Player A: 70.7% completion percentage, 256.3 yards per game, 9 yards per attempt, 32 TDs, 8 INTs, 28.6 attempts per game, 170.03 quarterback rating

Player B: 66.8% completion percentage, 205.3 yards per game, 9.3 yards per attempt, 26 TDs, 3 INTs, 22.0 attempts per game, 173.07 quarterback rating

Player C: 58.9% completion percentage, 194.1 yards per game, 7.6 yards per attempt, 11 TDs, 5 INTs, 25.6 attempts per game, 131.79 quarterback rating

For many, Player A would be the best quarterback. He throws for the most yards, has the highest completion percentage, and has the most passing touchdowns. But Player B is not far behind, and in some cases even outperforms Player A. Sure, he doesn’t throw it nearly as often, but he is more efficient when he throws (with a higher yards per attempt and higher rating), has almost as many touchdowns as Player A, and has only three interceptions. Finally, it is pretty clear that Player C has the worst numbers, being outperformed in almost every category by the other two.

So what do the numbers ultimately tell you? You would probably take Player A or Player B over Player C in a game, all else equal, and it wouldn’t even be close. The key here is the “all else equal.” Who knows what each of these quarterbacks has around them, but if everything were the same, there would be no question that Player C would be a significant underdog.

Well, Player A is Andrew Luck in 2010 (the first year he was runner-up for the Heisman and the year in which he established himself as the best NFL quarterback prospect since Manning), Player B is AJ McCarron this year with Alabama, and Player C is Everett Golson of Notre Dame, also this year. True, Golson’s numbers only came in ten-and-a-half games, while both Luck’s and McCarron’s numbers were accrued over 13 games, but it would be hard to argue that Golson’s numbers would look much better in those two or three extra games.

Knowing the players, two pretty clear conclusions can be drawn: (1) AJ McCarron, whose quarterback rating puts him at 2nd in the country this year, is pretty under-rated as a quarterback and (2) McCarron has been much better this year than Golson. Yes, McCarron has a lot of talent around him and is not asked to do much since he has such a great defense, offensive line, and rushing attack around him. But what can’t be denied is that when he is asked to throw it, he has been pretty consistent and effective.

The point is, in the coming national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame, don’t overlook McCarron. His numbers look almost as good as Luck’s did in 2010, and it can be argued he has been more efficient when he throws it. The Luck supporters would quickly point to the fact that he put up those numbers on a much less impressive Stanford team, had to carry more of the offensive load, and also had better rushing totals than McCarron. Still, the difference between the two quarterbacks is not as big as most would have assumed. And the difference between Luck’s supporting cast in 2010 and McCarron’s supporting cast this year is not nearly as big as most people think. For one, in 2010, Stanford’s defense ranked 9th in the nation in points allowed. On top of that, Luck was supported by a great rushing attack, which had over 210 yards a game, 17th best in the nation, and averaged 5.23 yards per rush. This year, Alabama’s defense has been top-2, and its rushing attack ranks 19th in rushing yards per game, with 5.56 yards per carry. Yes, Alabama is significantly better, but the difference is not huge. And this is not a criticism of Andrew Luck, who has been great since coming to the NFL and seems poised to be a great quarterback for years to come: this is more a validation of AJ McCarron, who has been great this year.

So which team would I pick for this year’s game? The Alabama Crimson Tide. The difference is McCarron. In almost every other category, the two teams are very close. And when two teams are this close, with a huge discrepancy at quarterback, the “all else equal” argument comes in: the choice is McCarron over Golson. To get an idea of how Alabama and Notre Dame compare in various defense and rushing attack categories, refer to the following table:

Team Alabama (Nation Rank) Notre Dame (Nation Rank)
Defense- Points Allowed 10.7 (2nd) 10.3 (1st)
Defense- Yards/Game Allowed 246.0 (1st) 286.8 (6th)
Defense- Yards/Play Allowed 4.09 (2nd) 4.46 (8th)
Turnover Margin +13 (12th) +10 (24th)
Defense- Turnovers Forced 28 (21st) 23 (48th)
Defense- Opponent 3rd Down Conv. 32.42% (16th) 34.55% (28th)
Defense- Opponent Red Zone Score % 62.96% (1st) 63.64 (2nd)
Defense- Opponent Red Zone TD % 51.85% (27th) 24.24% (1st)
Rush Offense- Yards per Game 224.62 (19th) 202.50 (29th)
Rush Offense- Yards per Rush 5.56 (6th) 4.99 (26th)


From the table, we see that for the most part the teams are not far apart. In most categories, Alabama ranks ahead slightly. Alabama’s rushing attack is slightly better, and its defense is better in every category except Points Allowed and Opponent Red Zone TD Percentage. So the difference could very well be the quarterback. Look at last year’s national championship game to see how much of a difference McCarron made: against a great LSU defense, he was at least able to move the ball to the tune of 234 yards, enough for 5 field goals and a touchdown to beat LSU 21-0. LSU had only twice allowed a higher passing total—against Oregon and West Virginia (both had top ten offenses) – and had only allowed 170 passing yard per game. And if Notre Dame has any vulnerability, it is in the passing game, where they rank “only” 21st in the country. So McCarron could be the X factor in the game. Alabama is the favorite for a reason.

That is not to say that Notre Dame cannot win, because they do have a chance. Football Outsiders ranks Notre Dame’s schedule as the 28th toughest in the nation, and Alabama’s only 50th, so Notre Dame may have faced somewhat tougher competition all year. And in some of Alabama’s tougher games, the team has looked very vulnerable, especially in terms of its pass defense. Ultimately, the template for Notre Dame is to rely on what it has done all year: get red zone stops. What stands out for Notre Dame in the table above is their Opponent Red Zone TD Percentage, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on only 25% of possessions in the red zone, way ahead of any other team in the country. If they can force Alabama into field goals in the red zone, all it takes is one or two big plays for them to pull off an upset. The Irish need their rushing attack to be at least average, which will be tough against Alabama’s number one rated rush defense (allowing only 2.26 yards per carry.) And they will probably need Golson to play well too, since that is where Alabama has been most vulnerable in all of its close games. With Golson’s improved play towards the end of the season, however, this is certainly not out of the question. But it will be very tough.

So I pick Alabama to win, but will be cheering for a close and exciting game, unlike last year’s dud.

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