By Adam Hoge-
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CBS) This is the fifth in a six-part series breaking down Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. Today, we take a look the special teams units:
In a close game, a big play on special teams could end up deciding it. For an underdog like Notre Dame, a special teams touchdown could help them pull off the upset, but allowing one could kill their chances.
Don’t expect to see a special teams touchdown Monday night though. Notre Dame has not allowed or scored a special teams touchdown all season, while Alabama has allowed just one and scored just one.
But return yardage still could play a major part in field position and the Tide has an advantage in that regard. The Irish are 115th in the country in punt return yardage with Davonte Neal averaging an astonishingly low 2.4 yards per return. Alabama, meanwhile, is 40th with 10.18 yards per punt return. Christion Jones primarily handles punt return duties. The Tide also ranks a healthy 12th in kick return yardage (24.84 yards/returns), with Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones both getting opportunities. Christion has the only return touchdown of the season for Alabama. Notre Dame ranks 82nd with 20.04 yards/return as George Atkinson III handles kick return duties.
As for punt and kick coverage, both teams are pretty even. Notre Dame ranks 49th in punt return defense (7.3 yards/return), while Alabama is 58th (7.67). The Irish are 80th in kick return defense (22.44), while the Crimson Tide is 72nd (21.83). While those numbers aren’t particularly great, Notre Dame has not allowed a return touchdown this season and Alabama has only allowed one (a kick return).
The Tide have a slight advantage at punter. Cody Mandell averages 43.8 yards per punt, while Notre Dame punter Ben Turk is just 64th in the country with 40.59 yards/punt. Alabama is 23rd in net punting (39.17), while Notre Dame is 39th (38.21).
At kicker, Jeremy Shelly is automatic under 40 yards (11-for-11 with a long of 38 yards), but Nick Saban uses Cade Foster for the longer kicks and he is just average. Foster has made just one of four kicks from 40-49 yards out, but is 3-of-5 from 50-plus. That said, he’s missed his last three kicks and Alabama hasn’t made a field goal over 34 yards since the Ole Miss game Sept. 29. Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brinza, meanwhile, is 23-of-31 on the year. He’s not as automatic as Shelly under 40 yards, but he has a lot more attempts (19-of-23 under 40). Brinza is also 4-of-8 from 40+, including a 52-yarder.
As for kickoffs, Foster has 42 touchbacks on on 92 kickoffs, while Brinza has 25 on 68.
Who Has The Edge? Even. Alabama has an advantage on kick returns as their 12th ranked unit faces Notre Dame’s 80th ranked unit, but I’d give Brinza an edge at kicker because he’s had a lot more opportunities this season. Watch that 23 yard-line though because that’s where Shelly’s range ends and Foster’s begins.