Louis Nix doesn't remember many specifics from last Saturday's fourth-and-inches on the goal line in overtime. "A lot of men stacked up on top of each other," Notre Dame's 326-pound junior nosetackle says with a smile. With a terrible vantage point from inside the pile, Nix missed a work of defensive art. On consecutive plays, the Fighting Irish stuffed Stanford back Stepfan Taylor from inside the one-yard line to preserve their unbeaten season.
Notre Dame's offensive performance this season doesn't offer much hope that it could move the ball against Alabama: The Irish rank 76th in total offense and 68th in scoring, and sophomore quarterback Everett Golson is responsible for all seven of the team's turnovers. But there are only a few defenses that are tough enough to handle the Crimson Tide's star-studded offensive line and its stable of backs. Notre Dame, which hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown in its last four games, has one of those D's. In a matchup with 'Bama, the Irish would have a chance to keep the score low, then sneak out a win on a turnover, of which they have forced 15 so far.
To get to a matchup with Alabama, Notre Dame would have to beat Oklahoma, on Oct. 27, and USC, on Nov. 24; both of those games are on the road. Of Notre Dame's six remaining opponents, the balanced Trojans would give the Irish the best preparation for the Tide, which can batter teams on the ground or use junior quarterback AJ McCarron (zero picks) and a group of underrated receivers to pick apart teams that stack the box.
Notre Dame is athletic enough up front to stuff the run and generate a formidable pass rush against McCarron without having to rely heavily on the blitz. Nix and senior linebacker Manti Te'o might be the best-equipped tandem in the country to handle the Alabama run-blocking duo of Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, who have been opening holes for Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon that you can drive an Escalade through. Keeping Stanford's Taylor out of the end zone when it mattered most proved Notre Dame's toughness, and the defense has forced plenty of bad throws; through six games, the Irish have 10 interceptions and have already forced more turnovers than they did all of last season (14). And loaded though it may be, the Tide offense doesn't have a player who, in practice, can simulate 6'6", 303-pound Notre Dame sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt (61/2 sacks, 23 tackles, one forced fumble and one blocked kick this season).
Oklahoma's pass-heavy, hurry-up strategy poses a different kind of challenge for a Notre Dame defense accustomed to offenses plowing between the tackles. Notre Dame's improved secondary will have to stick tight to the Sooners' receivers, and if Tuitt can use his wingspan to knock down some of Oklahoma's quick passes, he can disrupt quarterback Landry Jones without ever touching him.
Notre Dame is unaccustomed to the glare of expectations and its lack of success in recent years makes the Irish—ranked fifth in the opening BCS poll—susceptible to pollsters who might favor a Pac-12 or Big 12 team with a similar record. But 12--0 puts them in the title discussion. "As long as we're getting closer to Number 1," Te'o says, "that's all I care about."
ROBIN ALAM/ICON SMI (NOTRE DAME)
GOLD STANDARD Te'o stuffed Taylor on fourth-and-goal to preserve the win over Stanford—and further fortify his team's defensive rep.