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Tony's Top Five: Saban's best work as coach shows with this Tide

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Our CBSSports.com team on the ground has broken this game down in every way possible. But as a public service, keep these notes/observations in your hip pocket and read them again before the kickoff Monday night.

1. Saban's best-ever coaching job

Not long after Nick Saban took the job at Alabama in 2007, I visited him in Tuscaloosa. A couple of things became abundantly clear from our conversation: 1) from this point onward, Alabama football would speak with only one voice -- his; and 2) we were going to hear a lot about "The Process."

"Getting from where we are right now [Alabama was 6-7 in 2006] to where we want to be involves people being committed to the process and not the end result," he said. "You can't talk about winning a national championship when you haven't done anything to put yourself on that road."

In the past five seasons at Alabama, Saban is 60-7 and has won two national championships. He now has a chance to win his third national title in four years and his fourth overall in the BCS era (1998-present). They've already erected a statue of Saban outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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And this, in my opinion, is by far his best coaching job in 17 years as a college head coach. He lost seven starters from the No. 1 defense in the nation and six were drafted (three in the first round). Still Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart put together a unit that was No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, No. 2 (behind Notre Dame) in scoring defense, and No. 4 in pass defense.

Smart said this has been one of his favorite groups to coach because expectations were not particularly high after losing all those NFL draft choices.

"We had a lot of good players behind those guys and this group to me had a little chip on their shoulder and felt slighted that people did think they'd be good," said Smart.

But Smart also believes Saban's steady hand at the wheel played a big role in making this another elite Alabama defense.

"I've become who I've become as a coach from working for Coach Saban," said Smart, 37, who will be a head coach in the next few years. "There is nobody I could put him up against in the country [who is better]."

2. Three quick X-factors

We know both teams play great defense. We know both want to run the ball to set up the pass. We know that turnovers will probably make the difference. But here are three X-factors to keep in mind:

 Third and 7: Alabama leads the nation in first downs allowed with only 176 (13.54 per game). In fact, only twice since Saban came to Alabama in 2007 has a team converted more than 10 first downs in a game. Both happened this season on back-to-back weekends against LSU (10 of 20) and Texas A&M (11 of 18). And when Alabama gets its opponents to third and 7 or more, the Crimson Tide defense has a distinct advantage. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco put together a reel of Alabama defensive snaps on third and 7 or longer. Diaco said Alabama had more turnovers and sacks than conversions at that down and distance. After watching the tape "We called it a day after that because we were all demoralized," he said.

 Tyler Eifert: There are a number of good tight ends in the SEC but Alabama hasn't had a matchup problem like the one Tyler Eifert presents at 6-foot-6, 251 pounds. He won the Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's best tight. He led the Notre Dame team in catches with 44 for 624 yards. He is the all-time Notre Dame tight end for catches (134) and yards receiving (1,779). What concerns Alabama is the ability to move Eifert around and create bad matchups. "We haven't faced a tight end with this much talent," Smart said. "He really forces you to play different defensively because he's so multiple."

 Everett Golson: Notre Dame's sophomore quarterback has certainly been in big-stage games against Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC. And the redshirt freshman played considerably better in the second half of the season than the first. But for Notre Dame to win this game Golson has to play almost mistake-free and exercise extreme patience. Alabama will try to take away the run and force Golson (58.87 percent, 11 TD, 5 INT) to make some plays with his arm.

During the course of the game there will be handful of opportunities to make a play against the Alabama secondary. Golson must take advantage of those limited windows to score.

"Everett understands what is required in big games like this against great defenses," Kelly said. "We feel good about what he can do if he remains patient and doesn't try to force things."

3. Notre Dame reminds me of Ohio State in 2002

I know the boys in Vegas are a lot smarter than the rest of us. That's why they drive big cars and live in nice houses. While I am picking Alabama, I just don't see this as a double-digit game.

Notre Dame reminds me of the Ohio State national champions of 2002 that somehow found a way to win all 13 of its games. That team was great on defense and had a veteran quarterback, Craig Krenzel, who made just enough plays to win. That team won at Cincinnati by four (23-19), at Wisconsin by five (19-14), against Penn State by six (13-7), at Purdue by four (10-6, when Krenzel threw a 37-yard touchdown pass with 1:38 left), in overtime at Illinois (23-16), by five to Michigan (14-9), and in double-overtime in the BCS championship game against No. 1 Miami.

Notre Dame took a great defense and a young quarterback (Golson) and won by three against Purdue (20-17), by seven against Michigan (13-6), in overtime against Stanford (20-13 with a goal-line stand), by three against BYU (17-14), in three overtimes to Pittsburgh (29-26) after trailing by 14, and stopped USC on four straight plays from the 1-yard line to win 22-13.

Teams that win a lot of close games play with a lot of confidence.

4. What if it comes down to a field goal?

Notre Dame's Kyle Brindza has made a school-record 23 of 31 field goals and has been there when the Irish really needed him. Brindza made 3 of 4 field goals in the road win at Oklahoma. He made 3 of 4 field goals against Pittsburgh and the Irish needed every one of them.

Brindza kicked five field goals (another school record) in the 22-13 win at USC that gave Notre Dame a spot in the BCS championship game.

Brindza has a compelling personal story. Born with club feet, he needed five surgeries just to be able to walk like a normal child. Doctors said he would never participate in athletics. And here he is playing for the national championship.

Jeremy Shelly is Alabama's "short" kicker, and from 40 yards or less this season he has been perfect (11 of 11). He is 5 of 5 between 30 and 38 yards.

Cade Foster is remembered for the long-range misses against LSU in November of 2011. He's 1 of 4 between 40 and 49 yards this season, but has made 3 of 5 at 50-plus with two field goals from 51 and one from 52.

5. Want to keep peace? Don't bring up 1966 or '77

Alabama claims 14 national championships from various services since 1925. Notre Dame claims 11. The Associated Press has awarded its championship eight times to each team. There is no point in arguing about who is right and who gets to claim what.

The two teams have met only six times (Notre Dame leads 5-1), but the history between them is thick. Really thick:

In 1973 the two teams played for the first time in so-called Game of the Century in the Sugar Bowl at old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. Both teams were undefeated and Alabama had already been declared national champions by UPI, which awarded its title before the bowls. Notre Dame was clinging to a 24-23 lead with a third down on its own two-yard line. Instead of playing it safe, coach Ara Parseghian called for a pass and Tom Clements hit Robin Weber for 36 yards to clinch the game and the AP national championship for Notre Dame.

A year later the two met in the Orange Bowl with Notre Dame winning 13-11 in Parseghian's final game as coach. The Irish denied No. 1 Alabama the national championship.

But if you want to get an Alabama fan really mad, bring up 1966. That's the year that Parseghian famously ran out the clock and settled for a 10-10 tie with Michigan State. Notre Dame won the AP and UPI national championships. Alabama finished 11-0 with four shutouts in its final five games and closed out the season with a 34-7 win over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. Despite winning it all in 1964 and 1965, there was no three-peat for Alabama in 1966.

Alabama fans of a certain age have never gotten over it. Award-winning writer Keith Dunnavant dedicated an entire book The Missing Ring to the slight Alabama fans still feels until this day.

"It still hurts," defensive end Johnny Sullivan told Dunnavant in the book. "It probably always will ... till they put every last one of us in the grave."

In 1977 Alabama lost out on another national championship to Notre Dame. The Crimson Tide finished 11-1 with the only loss to No. 10 Nebraska in the second game of the season. Notre Dame finished 11-1 with a loss to an Ole Miss team that finished with a losing record and that Alabama beat 34-13. But No. 5 Notre Dame dominated No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl while No. 3 Alabama was beating Ohio State (35-6) in the Sugar Bowl. No. 2 Oklahoma lost to Lou Holtz and Arkansas in the Orange Bowl so Alabama thought it would go to No. 1. Instead, the media polls gave the national title to Notre Dame.

The players on the field Monday night have no knowledge of any of this. But the Alabama faithful will never forget. The Crimson Tide has never beaten Notre Dame to win a national championship. Trust me. For a team from the South, that's a pretty big deal.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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