SEC’s secret lies in the trenches

Front lines routinely control title-game fortunes

South Florida Sun SentinelJanuary 7, 2013 

BCS Te'o And Jones Football

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2012 file photo, Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones (75) reacts after a Crimson Tide score during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Notre Dame's Manti Te'o and the Crimson Tide's Jones are All-Americans and national award winners. They're also fine students who emphasize faith and postponed big money from the NFL to stay in school.(AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)


— Go ahead and focus on the ball.

The eye instinctively finds the speed, grace and glory of the skilled players on the football field. Problem is, the winners and losers are determined in the land of first contact. Recent history begs viewers of Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama to suppress urges to watch the ball carrier.

The big uglies control these games for the ultimate reward.

It’s exactly how the SEC bullied its way to six straight national titles and a big reason it’s eyeballing No. 7. Alabama pounds the ball and defends it as well. Notre Dame fits a similar mold, one that’s worked well recently and likely will decide the title.

“It’s not debatable. It’s 100 percent accurate,” said David Pollack, an All-America defensive end at the University of Georgia from 2001-04. “Just go back and look at the drafts for the past six years and find where the talent is coming from. … In saying that, Notre Dame is built like an SEC team.”

Among the past six SEC teams to win national titles, nine first-round draft picks came from the starting lines. Their BCS opponents produced the same number of overall lineman draft picks (17) but had five first-rounders. The SEC supplied both halves of last season’s title game when Alabama brutalized LSU, 21-0.

Size also was an advantage for the SEC teams, starting with Florida’s upset of Ohio State in the 2007 BCS title game. Including tonight’s game and the five played between SEC teams and outside competition, the southern team’s held a modest weight advantage on the offensive line (309.5 to 308.8).

On defense, SEC teams outweighed the competition by an average of 8.2 pounds per game. The size gap was widest in 2010 when Auburn’s average defensive linemen weighed 44 pounds more than its Oregon counterparts.

Tonight, Alabama will bring an offensive line averaging 314.2 pounds compared to Notre Dame’s 304.4. Defensively, the Irish’s three-man line is significantly larger than the Tide’s (312-296).

In the past, that front-line advantage was most evident in the running game. The non-SEC teams missed season rushing norms by an average of 105 yards. The opposite was true on the other side of the ball as SEC teams out-rushed the outsiders by an average of 203-91.

The SEC fronts in the 2007-11 title games played above their regular-season numbers by large margins. Despite statistically ranking below their opposition every season in sacks allowed, made and tackles for loss, the SEC teams dominated those key measures of front-line control. The sacks edge was 15-9, while tackles for loss were 36-24 for the SEC teams.

“I certainly think they’re won in the trenches,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “And I think that’s where (Notre Dame) is really dominant. … They do a really good job with the run game. That’s what people don’t give them enough credit. For me, it’s their ability to double-team up, and run the power game — very similar to our guys.”

Notre Dame’s rushing offense, which ranks 29th nationally, averages 202.5 yards per game. Alabama will counter with a No. 1 rushing defense that allows 79.9 yards per game. The Tide rushing attack gains 224.6 yards per game (19th nationally) and will face the No. 4 rushing defense that allows 92.4 per game.

“Alabama is just like the stereotype,” Notre Dame left tackle Zack Martin said. “They’re quick. They’re big. They’re strong.”

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