After humbling Notre Dame (again), Alabama is bound for College Football Playoff national championship game

Doug Segrest
Special to the Advertiser

Eight years ago, in the aftermath of a humiliating loss to Alabama, coach Brian Kelly vowed to remake Notre Dame. Bigger. Stronger.

Like the Crimson Tide.

Problem was, Nick Saban would soon remake his own program. The Tide remains big and powerful, but now operates at warp speed.

No. 1 Alabama ran away from fourth-ranked Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl on Friday, the first semifinal of the College Football Playoff, despite the Fighting Irish following their game plan perfectly.

Step one: Eat clock and keep the Crimson Tide offense off the field as long as possible.

Check. Not that it mattered.

Alabama 31, Notre Dame 14:How the Crimson Tide advanced to the College Football Playoff final

Alabama struck quickly, struck decisively and struck often enough to put this one out of reach early. Don’t blame the Irish. They are worthy of their ranking. There’s just a big gap at the top this year.

And it starts on offense, where Alabama has three Heisman Trophy candidates. Pick your poison.

Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA;  Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) scrambles for a gain against Notre Dame Friday, Jan. 1, 2021 in the College Football Playoff Semifinal hosted by the Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Heisman finalist Mac Jones (297 yards, four passing TDs) was typically efficient at quarterback. When the Irish took away deep threats, he found alternatives underneath and let them run, consistently hitting targets in stride.

DeVonta Smith, the expected Heisman winner, set the tone early with two first-half touchdown receptions before setting up his third with downfield blocking, guiding John Metchie after a catch like Sacagawea leading the Lewis and Clark expedition. He finished with 130 receiving yards.

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And running back Najee Harris (125 yards rushing) created an instant meme by hurdling an Irish defender. There was a message in the leap: As good as Notre Dame is, Alabama is more athletic.

None of that came as a surprise. The trio has put up a decade’s worth of highlight films this season alone. What sets the Alabama offense apart, however, is its consistency. The Rose Bowl victory marked the 25th consecutive game Alabama had scored at least 30 points, extending an FBS record.

Jahleel Billingsley celebrates his touchdown with running back Brian Robinson Jr.

The surprise was on defense, where a unit shredded by Florida in the SEC championship game made Notre Dame work — and work — for every yard. A much tougher test awaits 10 days from now in the title game, but Pete Golding’s defense is a strength in today’s video-game era.

About the only glitch Saturday came as halftime arrived, when Nick Saban couldn’t hear ESPN’s sideline reporter over the din of piped-in music at AT&T Stadium, the temporary host of the granddaddy of college bowls.

It’s about as frustrated as Saban got all day. Well, until a rant at officials drew a flag in the final minutes as Notre Dame made its most serious charge of the game.

The postgame narrative will focus on Notre Dame once again not being up to snuff on the biggest stage. Who is? Maybe the Ohio State-Clemson winner, when the finalists convene in Miami.

But only if the survivor figures out a way to make Alabama one dimensional. Notre Dame did about as well as anyone, holding the Tide to its lowest score of the season, and still ended up on the wrong end of a lopsided score.

This team has a date with history in a year like no other.

Doug Segrest, a former SEC beat reporter, is a freelance columnist for the Montgomery Advertiser.