Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Don’t ask Nick Saban about schedule strength; not if you value your life.
For the best coach in college football, it’s always been about his team, not theirs; about playing to a standard, not a style. Saban never thinks about external factors – he won’t even field questions about such things. Instead, he chews on glass and glares at you and makes you cry, because you should know better than to ask. You should know that for Saban and his dynasty-in-the-making Crimson Tide, it’s not about who you play. It’s about how you play.
Who can argue with the results?
In the interest of being thorough, and with apologies to Saban, let’s take a brief look at the schedule strength fallacy. According to Jeff Sagarin, Notre Dame played the 30th-toughest slate; Alabama the 35th. Sounds reasonable, but what does that really tell us?
Any system that gives Notre Dame more credit for playing Navy than it gives Alabama for playing Tennessee is a flawed and troubled system. In fact, according to the self-proclaimed gurus, Kent State is a tougher foe than Kentucky. Never mind that Kentucky demolished Kent State by 33 points. Kent State strengthens your schedule. Kentucky hurts it.
Let’s use Notre Dame’s game with Pittsburgh to further illustrate the point. If the Irish had beaten the Panthers by 40 points instead of three, there would have been no change in the strength of schedule. But there would have been a huge perceptual change in the strength of Notre Dame’s team.
Performance is what matters. That’s why Saban is the best there is and may one day be the best who ever was. His teams play the same way almost every week. And it’s because they are playing themselves, not their opponent.
Football games aren’t played on computers, anyway. They’re played on big-screen televisions. All that really matters is what we see with our own two eyes. Both the Tide and Irish played close, hard-fought games against the best teams on their respective schedules. Notre Dame gutted out a fourth-quarter win at Oklahoma and beat Stanford in overtime. Alabama outlasted Georgia and LSU, and was two yards away from a win over Texas A&M.
In terms of performance, that’s where the similarities end.
No one outside the top ten – including a ranked Michigan team that Notre Dame struggled to beat at home – came anywhere close to upsetting Saban’s Crimson Tide. Because when Alabama played the other ten teams, it wasn’t playing the other ten teams. It was playing itself, and it was doing so quite well, thank you. Average score: 42 to 6.
For Notre Dame, the narrative reads much differently. The scratching, clawing, Fighting Irish didn’t leave South Bend for South Beach. They escaped. Good teams, bad teams, average teams – it didn’t matter. The Golden Domers were almost always one Hail Mary away from losing.
Ultimately, that’s the difference between the two teams. Alabama kills you and then tracks down your family. Notre Dame throws a few punches and then buys you a beer.
For Notre Dame, the biggest problem – and the reason why Alabama should win – is their offense. The Irish move the ball well enough, averaging over 400 yards a game. But they exceeded 30 points only three times all season (Alabama did it 11 times).
The culprit? Red zone inefficiency. More than half the time, the Irish settled for three points once they got inside the 20. Alabama, on the other hand, found the end zone a remarkable 74 percent of the time. In a game that features two stout defenses, Field Goal Jesus is no match for Touchdown Alabama.
None of this is meant to take away from an impressive Notre Dame season. They earned their way to Miami by being an SEC team in an Independent’s uniform; playing gritty, smash-mouth, in-your-face football. In short, Notre Dame has a football team the Alabama football team can be proud of. But when push comes to shove – and there’s gonna be a lot of both in South Beach – the edge goes to Saban and Alabama. They’ve been doing it longer, and they’re still doing it better.
It’s Crimson versus Clover. Dominance versus Deliverance. The Te’o of Notre Dame versus the Tao of Saban.
But don’t tell Saban that. Not if you value your life. For him, it’s not Alabama versus Notre Dame. It’s Alabama versus Alabama for the 14th straight week. And that, more than any other reason, is why his team made it to this game in the first place. And why they will more than likely win it.