Laken Litman: Alabama lost the core of its defense after last year's national championship, but this year's crew has proved talented, relentless and stingy. The unit may not be as dominant, per se, but it has created more turnovers and sacks than it did a year ago.
That said, the Crimson Tide doesn't have a dominant pass rusher like it did last year in Courtney Upshaw, but rather a group of guys that can be effective. Alabama's problem all season in that department has been consistency. Guys can rush and cover, but don't do it on a consistent enough basis.
Another area of weakness is Alabama's secondary, which was Nick Saban's main concern heading into the season because of the inexperience. Though the Tide ranks sixth nationally in passing defense, in matchups with LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, they gave up an average of 276.7 yards per game. In Alabama's most recent outing against UGA in the SEC Championship game, the Bulldogs moved down the field by hitting the tide with explosive plays through the air (for 281 yards).
Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch (6-5, 258) was able to make big plays against Alabama, so you know the Tide is spending extra hours in the film room preparing for Tyler Eifert, who will be a key component to Notre Dame's success offensively. Eifert presents a mismatch with Bama's defenders. It will take a collective effort from guys like Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard, Robert Lester and Dee Milliner to cover him.
TO: A.J. McCarron came of age in last year's BCS title game. He was excellent in 2012 with only three outings (LSU, A&M, UGA) in which he wasn't absolutely lights out. What did those teams do defensively to bother him and the 'Bama offense?
LL: To put it simply, those teams just had good defenses. The biggest knock on Alabama all season (before those three games) was that they hadn't been tested by a solid, staunch defense. One reason Alabama's offense was able to light up opponents was due to lack of competition. Those three games provided a challenge.
Alabama faced a top 5 defense in LSU that was able to slow its running game for the most part. Against Texas A&M, McCarron threw his first two interceptions in 289 pass attempts and after the game, center Barrett Jones and McCarron said the Aggies came out in some "bizarre looks" running things they hadn't seen before and weren't prepared for. Then against UGA, the Tide relied on its running game more than McCarron's arm due to the Bulldogs' pass rush.
In those three aforementioned games, McCarron completed just 58.5 percent of his passes and threw as many touchdowns as interceptions (three). The guy is as confident as players come, in himself, his teammates and his coaches. Perhaps with a month separating the Georgia game and the national championship, he will get his act together.
TO:Notre Dame has had a rough season in the return game, lacking any spark in the kick return and basically giving up on punt returns. They're solid in coverage, but does this present the Crimson Tide with a major edge in the "hidden yardage" department? What type of weaponry does the Tide have in the return game?
LL: Saban wants his return game to play it safe. The Tide averages 25.8 yards per game on punt returns, 36.3 ypg on kickoffs.
Christion Jones is the main man and is the only player to score a touchdown on a return this season—a 99-yard kickoff return against Ole Miss. When fielding a punt, Saban just wants to get the ball back.
"You don't always have to try to make a great play, just make a smart play," he said last month.
Jones and Bama's other return man, Cyrus Jones, have muffed a punt apiece this season. Saban isn't one for taking too many risks, he just wants to get the ball back. Unless he pulls out some trickery specially for the national championship game, Alabama doesn't really have any concerning weaponry in its return game.
TO: Who has been Alabama's most improved player over the course of the season on both sides of scrimmage?
LL: Offensively, I'd say wide receiver Amari Cooper. A true freshman, no one knew he'd have the season he's having, which is leading all receivers with 894 yards and nine touchdowns. He stretches defenses, can go over the top and take shots down field, and has proven key in big wins this season, most recently catching the game-winning 45-yard touchdown against Georgia in the final minutes. After the SEC Championship game, Barrett Jones called Cooper one of the fastest people he's ever seen.
Defensively, I'd say sophomore outside linebacker Adrian Hubbard. The 6-6, 248-pounder leads the team in sacks (six) and tackles for loss (10), overwhelming linemen with his speed and length. He hasn't reached near his potential yet and will be more threatening at the Sam position in years to come. He could probably add on some more weight, too.
TO: What's the confidence level of (reasonable) Alabama fans that their defending champion Tide will handle Notre Dame and capture a second straight national title? Is there a shared chief concern when facing the Irish?
LL: Reasonable Alabama fans are nervous. Some are concerned that Notre Dame will come out fired up and Alabama will be flat. They feel that as long as the Tide doesn't get down early or make mistakes, they can win. However, though some fans are weary, they all predict an Alabama win and say Notre Dame is lucky to be in this game.