SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly saw where all the BCS championship trophies were going when he took over the Irish three years ago.
And that trend gave Kelly a blueprint to rebuild Notre Dame into a national title contender – build the Irish a Southeastern Conference-caliber defense.
“For us to move Notre Dame back into national prominence, we had to begin with our defense,” Kelly said. “Our focus in developing our talent and recruiting and getting the right staff was on the defensive side of the ball.
“A lot of that was some natural models, but you look to the SEC and the teams playing for national championships, and obviously Alabama, leading that charge, was built on defense.”
Kelly’s defensive focus helped lead No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) to a showdown in the BCS championship game Jan. 7 in Miami against defending national champion and No. 2 Alabama (12-1).
The Crimson Tide will be trying to win their third title in four years and bring the crystal football back to an SEC school for the seventh year in a row. But Alabama coach Nick Saban said he isn’t focusing on continuing the conference’s dominance while preparing to play Notre Dame.
“We have a tremendous respect for the competition in the SEC, and I think the record speaks for itself in terms of what has been accomplished in the past few years,” Saban said. “But our goal is for our football team and our players. Our focus is for us to try to get our players and our team as well prepared for this game so that they can play their best football of the year, which is probably what it is going to take against a fine team like Notre Dame.”
Saban will see little difference between his defense and that of the Irish.
Notre Dame and Alabama finished Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring defense with the Irish giving up 10.3 points per game and the Tide giving up 10.7. Alabama gives up an average of 246 yards, while Notre Dame gives up 286.3.
The Tide gives up 79.8 rushing yards and 166.2 passing yards to the Irish’s 92.4 rushing yards and 194.4 passing yards.
“Defensively, they probably have the best front seven in the country,” Saban said. “This is just a good, all-around football team and a very physical football team.”
And the model to make that defense came from Alabama and its SEC brethren.
“Where we really took a specific model was the defensive linemen in the SEC and that physical presence. Whether it be against the run or on the edge or your defense, we needed to find guys like that,” Kelly said. “When I use that SEC model, what I was specifically talking about is developing your defense and in particular, your front seven. … We think that was the first step in helping us move our program to a championship level.”
Notre Dame found its linemen in SEC territory. Starting defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt are from Texas and Georgia, and starting nose guard Louis Nix III is from Florida.
Twenty-six of the Irish’s current players are from SEC states, and the 2013 recruiting class has seven members from SEC states.
“There are some similarities in terms of the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said of his team and Alabama. “I think we are continuing to develop the skill level of our football team, but I think there are some more similarities up front on the offensive and defensive lines.”