Alabama’s machine looks unstoppable again while crushing Notre Dame

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) throws from the pocket in the second half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

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Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) throws from the pocket in the second half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

Alabama twice held 18-point leads against Florida in the SEC Championship game before giving back all but six points by the end. That raised the possibility that the Crimson Tide machine may not be as invincible as it’s appeared all season. After Alabama beat up Notre Dame in a College Football Playoff semifinal Friday, it’s again time to wonder if any opponent can prevent the Crimson Tide from rolling to another national championship.

“It means a lot,” Alabama star wide receiver DeVonta Smith said after the 31-14 Rose Bowl victory. “But we’re not done yet.”

The last time the Tide appeared this unstoppable it turned out they weren’t. They were 14-0 in 2018 with several lopsided victories when they went to the Bay Area to play Clemson for the national title. The Tigers beat them 44-16. Alabama will get a rematch in the CFP Championship game Jan. 11 if favored Clemson defeats Ohio State in the other semifinal late Friday.

The Tide were favored by 19 points over Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl, which was played in Texas because of the pandemic. They let up after led 31-7 early in the fourth quarter.

“We didn’t come here to finish here,” Saban said on the field after the game. “I was really proud of the way we came out and played. We didn’t finish the game how like we’d like. I’ve always got something that I’m complaining about.

“Anyway, it’s a great team win.”

Bama (12-0) took care of business against an overmatched foe. Chances are Clemson or Ohio State won’t be as easy an out Jan. 11.

Before the semifinals, the William Hill sportsbook set the Tide as a four-point favorite over Clemson in a potential championship game. Alabama was favored by a touchdown against the Tigers for the 2018 title game. Yet either Clemson or Ohio State will have to beat an Alabama team that’s somehow even more potent on offense than the 2018 squad.

The Tide are in position to set the program record for scoring for the third consecutive season. They scored touchdowns on four of six possessions against Notre Dame before garbage time, and none of them took longer than 2:36.

The Tide are scoring more points than the 2018 team despite star wide receiver Jaylen Waddle going down with an ankle injury Oct. 24 that required surgery. In 2018 Tua Tagovailoa, a Heisman Trophy candidate, was throwing to future NFL first-round draft picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. This year it’s Heisman candidate Mac Jones passing to Heisman candidate DeVonta Smith and handing off to big and fast back Najee Harris.

Notre Dame (10-2) is the latest opponent to have no answer for that trio. Jones had just five incomplete passes on 30 attempts, 297 yards and four touchdowns. Smith had 130 yards receiving and scored three TDs to tie the SEC season record of 20 set by LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase last season. Harris ran for 125 yards on only 15 carries.

Notre Dame was behind 14-0 before it could get close to Alabama’s end zone. The margin was still two touchdowns at halftime. After the break, the Fighting Irish forced Alabama to punt for the first time. But quarterback Ian Book threw an interception on Notre Dame’s next drive, Smith followed with his third touchdown, and that was pretty much it for the Irish.

In the days before the game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly argued that his program didn’t get its proper respect. That’s a strange position to take in the long view. Notre Dame boasts 11 national championships (13 by the NCAA’s accounting) and seven Heisman Trophy winners. But the last championship was in 1988, the year after Tim Brown won the program’s most recent Heisman.

All of Notre Dame’s recent championship bids ended with blowout losses. The Irish lost four Bowl Championship Series games by a combined score of 158-57. Clemson beat them 30-3 in a 2018 CFP semifinal. If Notre Dame wanted respect, nothing could do that like beating one of Saban’s better Alabama teams. Instead, the Fighting Irish were KO’d again on the biggest stage.

Notre Dame’s upset hopes rested largely on a defense that ranks among the best in the country. Entering the playoff they had allowed one point less per game than Clemson, the ACC’s top scoring defense. Three games ago Notre Dame held high-scoring North Carolina to 298 yards and 17 points, none after halftime. Two Notre Dame opponents didn’t score a touchdown and one didn’t score at all.

But Clemson (twice) showed that Notre Dame is vulnerable to big plays against the best scoring teams. No team in the Power 5 is better than Bama at putting up points fast. The Crimson Tide barely broke a sweat while scoring TDs on each of their first three possessions.

After Alabama forced Notre Dame to end its first possession with a punt, Jones completed his first pass for 15 yards to tight end Miller Forristall. His next pass went for 14 yards to another tight end, Jahleel Billingsley. Jones’ third throw, again to Forristall, gave Alabama a first down and Harris ran for 11 yards to Notre Dame’s 26-yard line.

The Tide had moved 53 yards in five plays without Smith touching the ball. Jones finally threw incomplete on the sixth play, then found Harris for a 26-yard touchdown on the next snap. Alabama had the lead after less than five minutes and wouldn’t come close to giving it back.

The Irish made it past midfield on their next drive before stalling. A good punt pinned Alabama at its 3-yard line, but poor field position hardly mattered. Alabama needed only five plays to drive for a touchdown. Harris started it with a 15-yard run and, on the fourth play, leaped a defender during a 53-yard gain. Jones finished the drive with a 12-yard TD throw to Billingsley.

The Irish answered with a touchdown, but unlike Alabama, they had to work hard to do it. Notre Dame converted three third downs on the way to a first-and-goal. Book tried to score on a run from the 3-yard line but got stuffed. Kyren Williams powered into the end zone on fourth down.

Alabama extended its lead to two touchdowns again with a six-play, 84-yard scoring drive. Smith’s 24-yard reception was followed by a 15-yard gain by Billingsley. Smith’s second TD was for 34 yards.

Smith appeared to injure his back on that score. It didn’t take long for him to prove he was fine. On the second play after halftime Smith outjumped a defender to snag a 22-yard reception. That drive ended with a punt. The next Alabama possession concluded with Smith’s 7-yard score, and Alabama was on its way back to CFP title game.

“These guys have really earned the opportunity to play in the national championship game,” Saban said. “So we’ll see what we can do with it.”

Saban has declared the 2009 Alabama team as the best among his 14 seasons in Tuscaloosa. That’s one of five national championship winners he’s coached, and it’s no surprise that Saban takes that view of his only undefeated squad. The 2009 Crimson Tide squad went 14-0 with Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.

This year’s Alabama team never had a chance to match that record because its pandemic schedule includes a maximum of 13 games. The Tide will reach that limit in the CFP Championship game. Win it, and maybe Saban will change his mind about the best Alabama team he’s coached.