2020 Rose Bowl Preview
Well, college football fans, we made it. In a season that many thought would never come and even more thought would not finish, we arrive at the College Football Playoff. That is not to say, of course, that COVID-19 has not impacted the season. It has. The Rose Bowl offers a perfect example. While we still call it “The Rose Bowl,” the game will not be played in Pasadena due to public guidelines in California. Instead, the Grandaddy of Them All will be played in Arlington, Texas, the first time Pasadena will not host the game since World War II. Yet, in a year of oddities, we find ourselves writing our 2020 Rose Bowl Preview by looking at Alabama (which has not played in the game since 1946) and Notre Dame (which last played in the game in 1926).
This year offers us at least a few familiar sights. Alabama is in the playoffs, again. The Crimson Tide has multiple postseason award candidates, again. Notre Dame earned a ten-win season, again. The Irish also features its fair share of award candidates, again.
Alabama has multiple All-American candidates, per usual. They have a pretty good chance at adding another Heisman Trophy winner to their list of accolades, too. Both signal-caller Mac Jones and wideout DeVonta Smith earned invitations to the Heisman ceremony, to occur virtually on January 5th. As such, it is another year with another celebrated Alabama quarterback. And Smith follows in a line of dominant Alabama receivers, following in the footsteps of Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, and Calvin Ridley. And what would Alabama be without a star-powered running back? Najee Harris, it just so happens, finished fifth in Heisman voting, just missing the cut to join the ceremonies.
Both Notre Dame and Alabama also offer candidates for the Chuck Bednarik Award given to the best defensive player in the nation. Notre Dame offers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the favorite for many. Owusu-Koramoah finished the season with 56 tackles (11 for loss), an interception, two fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), and three forced fumbles. On the other side, Alabama offers Patrick Surtain.
Both teams also feature finalists for the Outland Trophy given to the best interior lineman. On the Fighting Irish side, we see Liam Eichenberg. The Crimson Tide, on the other hand, offers Alex Leatherwood as their candidate for the award. Alabama center Landon Dickerson joins Leatherwood as an award finalist. Dickerson is one of three finalists for the Rimington Trophy.
Rose Bowl Preview: The Matchup
Head Coaches Brian Kelly and Nick Saban certainly do not play out games on paper. If they did, however, the result would be clear. As usual, Alabama does not have many true weaknesses. They enter the semifinal 11-0, having scored 50 or more points in six games. They average just under 50 points per game on the season. Additionally, their defense surrenders just under 20 points per game. A team that averages a 30-point spread certainly does plenty right.
Jones completes 76% of his passes and has thrown only four interceptions to 32 touchdowns. Harris racked up an incredible 27 total touchdowns (24 on the ground) in 2020. Smith–who was not even the team’s leading receiver heading into the year–piled up over 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air. That represents a historically-prolific trio of skill players on offense. And those efforts do not even match Alabama’s perfection on special teams. Alabama kicker Will Reichard, also an award finalist, has attempted 12 field goals and 73 extra points. He has not missed once.
On the other side, Notre Dame plays solid defense, surrendering just 18.6 points per game and racking up 30 sacks and 17 takeaways. On offense, the Fighting Irish rack up just under 218 yards per game. Kyren Williams leads the team with 1,061 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Veteran quarterback Ian Book leads Notre Dame’s aerial attack that is up about 240 yards a game. Book has not lost often either. They have only lost one game this season, a 34-10 loss to Clemson in Notre Dame’s first-ever appearance in the ACC Championship Game (another 2020 oddity). In that game, Clemson avenged a 47-40 double-overtime loss to the Fighting Irish earlier this season.
Saban readily admits that Notre Dame is a very good team. “You do not win ten games without being a really good team,” Saban said. Kelly knows how good Alabama is, too, but he does not see his team rolling over. He cites a hungry team ready to overcome their stinging loss to Clemson.
Rose Bowl Preview: The Prediction
Notre Dame and Alabama last met in the BCS National Championship Game in 2013, a 42-14 win by the Crimson Tide. As much of a mismatch as that turned out to be, we think Alabama looks even better this season. Simply, it is hard to ignore what shows up on paper. Alabama is not just a “stat-stuffer” team. Those statistics represent a well-coached, disciplined, and talented team that will, as usual, pump out multiple first-round draft picks. Notre Dame, to be clear, is great in its own right. This is not, in our view, a year where Notre Dame is vastly overrated.
That said, it is simply hard to see Notre Dame overcoming the multiple readily-apparent talent advantages Alabama possesses. Moreover, as hard as it is to imagine given their annual success, Saban has the Crimson Tide playing angry. Last season, hated LSU became the darlings of the nation, and Clemson opened the 2020 season ranked first in the opening AP poll. No doubt Saban has given his team an earful after barely escaping Florida (albeit with a historically-efficient Gator offense) and giving up 46 points to them. To Alabama, that is not good enough. And they will take out their frustration on the Fighting Irish. As is often the case in the semifinal playoff games, we predict yet another lopsided win by the favorite. Alabama earns a spot in the National Championship Game by a score of 50-14.