Golson gained Brian Kelly's trust as the season progressed, notably as the triggerman in the team's read-option attack. Over the first four weeks, his rushing plays were all the result of scrambles or sprint-outs, but since Kelly sprung the read-option on Miami in Week Five (9 carries, 51 yards for Golson in one half), the ground game overall hit its stride, with six of the team's seven total games in excess of 200 rushing yards occurring in the final eight contests.
Beginning with a win at Oklahoma to conclude October, Golson's final five games included 1,167 passing yards and 224 rushing yards with 10 total touchdowns and just two turnovers. He previously had hit for only 961 passing with just four touchdowns against seven turnovers (four fumbles) while adding just 67 net yards on the ground.
In short, Golson was the team's second-best offensive player over the last five games and its most important. That wasn't the case over the season's first two months.
2. We know about Manti Te'o—Heisman Trophy runner-up, team-leading 103 tackles, tied for second-most interceptions in the nation with seven—but who are some other weapons on this defense that makes Notre Dame one of the best units in the country (No. 1 in scoring defense and top 10 in total and rushing) that the Tide needs to worry about?
Its starts up front with an All-American and his cohort snubbed by the voters. True sophomore Stephon Tuitt (6'6" 300) led the team in sacks (12) and forced fumbles (3), and was tied for second in QB Hurries (9) while also showing his athleticism on a 77-yard fumble recovery touchdown (one of the more remarkable plays of the Irish season). Tuitt was a close second to Te'o as the team's best player in September, but since that mantle likely belongs to junior nose guard Louis Nix (6'4" 330).
Nix was the anchor of a rush defense that allowed just two touchdowns on the ground and of course, just eight touchdowns in 33 red zone visits by opponents. Should Nix go down early in the Championship Game, Notre Dame would stand no chance of stopping 'Bama's power running game.
Two other defensive linemen emerged this season as well: 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore (6'4" 305) and hybrid LB/DE Prince Shembo (6'2" 260). Shembo led the team with 12 QB Hurries, adding 9 sacks, while Lewis-Moore, known more as a run-stuffer prior to 2012, tied with Tuitt at nine QB Hurries adding six sacks. Lewis-Moore might have been the best defensive linemen in November.
Shembo occasionally is asked to play in space, where he's a bit uncomfortable, but when his hand is down on the edge, he's a terror coming at the QB.
Another player to keep an eye on is Dog (Drop) linebacker Danny Spond, a player who's career was in doubt due to a severe migraine condition in August. At 6'2" 245 pounds, Spond rarely comes off the field (he and Te'o excel in coverage), even switching to play cornerback (with safety help over the top) in lieu of the Irish bringing in a third corne in some nickel situations. Despite that skill set, Spond's greatest contribution was securing the field (wide) edge vs. the run. Spond ran with and contained USC speedster Marqise Lee on an end-around attempt -- he's a vastly underrated football player.
3. How does Notre Dame plan to stop Alabama's running back tandem of Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon? The two combined for 334 yards against Georgia in the SEC Championship game and have both rushed for at least 1,000 yards this season. The Irish have the nation's fourth-ranked rushing defense, but have they faced a duo like Alabama's this season?
The Irish defense faced four top tier running backs this season: Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (#3 in rushing yards nationally), Stanford's Stepfan Taylor (#13), Pittsburgh's Ray Graham (#47 despite missing several starts), and Oklahoma's Damien Williams (905 yards, 11 TD). Graham enjoyed the most success (24 carries, 172 yards and a TD -- the only rushing score by a running back vs. Notre Dame in 2012), though he was stymied in the fourth quarter and three overtimes (13 total yards) in South Bend.
Taylor hammered into the Irish line 28 times for 102 yards -- but famously without a touchdown. Bell was held in check (19 carries, 77 yards) and Williams was part of an Oklahoma rushing attack that gained just 15 net yards vs. Notre Dame (or a total of 34 not including a fumble).
The only talented tandem the Irish faced was at USC with Curtis McNeal (38 yards) and Silas Redd (77) handled for most of the contest. The combination of Lacy and Yeldon will be the most talented and versatile the Irish have faced, though Pittsburgh's Graham is easily of their caliber and was the Panthers' entire offense while Taylor was the most physical/determined to date.
4. Alabama's secondary has been exposed in its biggest games of the season—against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, the Tide gave up an average of 276.7 yards per game. How will Notre Dame use its passing game, especially Tyler Eifert, to frustrate Alabama? The Crimson Tide hasn't faced a tight end like him, therefore not having the experience of covering a player of his size (6-6, 251) and caliber combo.
The Irish will likely come out as they have in most big games: using play-action passes in the first half in an attempt to get on top early. Getting Golson out of the pocket for passes at the second level of the defense and deep downfield is a popular theme in big games. When he's in the pocket, its usually a quick read with tunnel screens or slants and the occasional quick hitch.
Eifert lines up all over the formation, but often is solo to the boundary (near) side matched against a smaller cornerback. If Golson reads solo coverage, Eifert will run a hitch or fade/back shoulder fade; if not, the field side is opened to slants by T.J. Jones or slots Theo Riddick and Robby Toma against a lone defender. Jones moved the chains more than Eifert in 2012, though the All-American was easily the top choice in third-down situations. (Eifert was actually more of a coverage nightmare last season when paired with standout Michael Floyd.)
Key to the passing game on January 7 is the potential return of redshirt-freshman DaVaris Daniels, the team's most athletic receiver who broke his collarbone on November 10 at Boston College. Daniels was expected to begin contact work by December 16. Daniels had begun to make his mark in wins vs. Oklahoma and Pittsburgh (he was the top target in the latter) before the injury.
5. What's the confidence level of (reasonable) Notre Dame fans that they can prevent Alabama from defending their title, and what is the level of concern fans have in facing the Tide?
Confidence has grown since the matchup was announced, of course, but most Notre Dame fans know that the presence of Alabama in the title game means one thing: the opponent won't give anything away. Had the Irish faced Georgia, that was possible. Had the Irish faced Oregon, it was believed by most the team would slow the Ducks' rushing attack (as did Stanford) and be able to score enough to control the game. Alabama presents the ultimate challenge.
Few fans believe their Irish should be underdogs of more than a touchdown, especially considering they haven't given up more than two touchdowns to anyone this season, but its certainly fair they're considered the underdogs in the matchup.
Brian Kelly offered in the summer that the Irish wouldn't be taken seriously as a program until they beat an SEC team in a BCS Bowl. The stakes have been raised.