The top-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) will square off with second-ranked Alabama (12-1) for the national title on Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. at 8:30 p.m. (ESPN).
Notre Dame’s stunning success caught the attention of the college football nation this season with each passing week – and each passing victory. And when the Irish secured its final regular season win in dramatic fashion at USC last month, Saban was glued to the TV just like over 10 million other people across the country.
“I was very impressed with their defense,” Saban said. “I mean, USC gets the ball on the one-yard line and has like five plays (actually eight) from the two-yard line and can’t make an inch. There are some pretty physical guys and they have some great toughness.”
That “toughness” is something that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has tried to instill since he arrived on campus three years ago this month.
“We were just trying to develop a toughness to the group,” Kelly said. “A mental and physical toughness that you need.”
A “toughness” like Saban has developed with the Crimson Tide according to Kelly.
“You watch Alabama in the third quarter (in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game against Georgia) and they exhibited their will,” Kelly said. “Their physical and mental toughness is what jumps off of the screen to me. That’s what we’re working on and we’re still a work in progress.”
The Irish defense has gained national attention, actually, so has Alabama’s. These two programs have the number one and two scoring defenses in the country (the Irish are first), so the old adage about defense winning championships is indeed true. But Saban also is wary of a facet of the Irish offense.
“Notre Dame has run the ball effectively every time that I’ve seen them play,” Saban said. “This is a really good team that has a lot of good football players and a lot of balance.”