MIAMI — As tonight's BCS title game between undefeated No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 defending national champion Alabama approaches, you can talk about the 25 national titles between them, or the quarterback play of Tide veteran AJ McCarron and first-year Irish starter Everett Golson. But eventually you should talk about the trenches. Because according to the coaches and players, that's precisely where the national title will be decided.
"It's a little bit old-fashioned in the sense that this game is about the big fellows up front," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "It's not about the crazy receiving numbers or passing yards or rushing yards. This is about the big fellas, and this game will be decided, unquestionably, up front."
The most anticipated matchup is that of Alabama's veteran offensive line — led by three All-Americans, including 6-foot-5, 302-pound center Barrett Jones — against Notre Dame's front seven, led by linebacker and Heisman Trophy runnerup Manti Te'o and 6-3, 326-pound tackle Louis Nix.
"When we found out that Alabama was playing Notre Dame, we all thought about Barrett Jones and that big offensive line, with those two physical backs, going up against that front seven," said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who along with Brent Musberger will call tonight's game. "And while Manti gets most of the attention, their defensive line is really why they are in the national championship. What I want to see is, can that defensive line and those linebackers stop this running game without having to get their safeties down to help out?"
The Tide's dominance on the offensive line has been instrumental in the success of its running game, led by junior Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon, who have combined for 2,182 yards.
"I know he's a great player and it's going to be a hard battle," Nix said of Jones. "I don't expect this to be an easy battle in the trenches at all. They are a great running team, they get a lot of points off running; it's like their bread and butter. Hopefully we can stop them, and if not, hopefully we can get to the quarterback."
Jones, who injured his left foot in the SEC Championship Game, said he expects to be 100 percent.
"I know it's going to be a big challenge, probably the biggest challenge I've faced all year," he said of Nix. "I think this will be won in the trenches. In 3-4 defenses the cornerstone in many ways is to kind of have a nose guard who can anchor down and stop the run. I feel like both teams have that."
Musberger believes Alabama will discover that Notre Dame's front seven "is built like an SEC defense." Big yet fast. A challenge that may surprise the Tide.
"I think we understand what Alabama does, and people understand what we can do," Te'o said. "It's all about executing, and I think that's football at its finest. Teams that line up and play their hearts out and just play tough, physical football."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said there are a multitude of things his team has to be prepared for, including the matchup problems that tight end Tyler Eifert poses, and Golson, whom Saban said is vastly underrated as a passer. But that is predicated on what's happening up front.
"They play smash-mouth defense and we play smash-mouth offense," Alabama left guard Chance Warmack said. "Come (tonight), it's going to be a big opportunity to see which team holds up."
And whichever team that is, according to Kelly, will be your national champion.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]