Led by the toughest defenses anywhere, two of the most storied programs in college football history face off with the national championship on the line.

BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: #2 Alabama (12-1) vs. #1 Notre Dame (12-0)

[Monday, January 7, at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN]

How They Got Here

Alabama’s national-title hopes appeared finished following an upset loss at home to Texas A&M in early November. But a series of upsets opened up the door for Alabama to clinch a spot, which they did with a 32-28 victory over then-#3 Georgia in the SEC championship game. Notre Dame began the season unranked, but steadily moved up the polls in the middle of the season after beating four ranked opponents in six weeks. They had a triple-overtime scare against Pittsburgh in early November, but survived and won out to advance to the title game as the only undefeated team in the FBS.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Notre Dame leads the nation in scoring defense (10.3 points per game) and is sixth in total defense. Led by Heisman-finalist Manti Te’o, the Fighting Irish have held all but two opponents this year to 14 or fewer points. As such, the Alabama offense will have its work cut out for it. However, they have the players to take on the challenge. The Crimson Tide is led by a powerful running game that features two 1,000-yard rushers who combined for 27 touchdowns. They will challenge a Notre Dame defense that ranks fourth nationally against the run. While Alabama relies on a powerful ground game, quarterback A.J. McCarron has also been quite efficient this year, throwing for 2,669 yards, 26 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He’ll have to be particularly aware of Notre Dame’s talented secondary, but he certainly can't forget about Te’o, the All-American who finished second in the nation in interceptions (the only non-DB in the top 25).

When Notre Dame Has the Ball

Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson doesn’t have gaudy numbers (2,135 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions) but he has been steady and shown improvement in his game management each week. But like Alabama, the Notre Dame offense is led by a powerful running attack. The Fighting Irish rank 27th nationally in rushing and feature two backs with 740 or more yards this year. But they’ll face their toughest test against an Alabama defense that leads the nation in both rushing defense and total defense and is second in scoring defense. The Crimson Tide gave up 28-plus points to Georgia and Texas A&M, but did not allow another opponent to score more than 17. They also pitched four shutouts this year.

What to Know

The Fighting Irish seek their first national title since 1988, and winning it would make them first team since BYU in 1984 to win the championship after beginning the season unranked in the A.P. poll. Five times, the Fighting Irish have played as the #1 team against the #2 team; they are 4-0-1 in those matchups. Alabama is hoping to become the first team since Tom Osborne's Nebraska juggernaut in 1994-97 to win three championships in four years. A team from the SEC has won the last six straight national championships. Alabama has won nine national titles in the poll era, with the Fighting Irish right behind them at eight.

What to Watch For

We know what the defenses can do, so this game could hinge on which offense can make that one extra play (or avoid the big turnover). Both teams rank in the 40s in total offense, but Notre Dame has struggled to turn those yards into points, ranking just 79th in scoring. Alabama, meanwhile, has been much more opportunistic, ranking 15th nationally in scoring. Both teams will need to capitalize on their scoring opportunities, but in a game of this magnitude, look for a key defensive or special-teams play to be the difference maker in a hard-hitting, low-scoring game.

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