MIAMI >> Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s hard to turn away from Notre Dame and Alabama.
They are storied programs that stir plenty of passions, college football’s North and South versions of the New York Yankees.
Well, now they’re facing each other for the biggest prize of all.
A national championship.
“Having those two traditions come together in a game like this certainly creates a lot of national interest,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, “which is probably really good for college football.”
Indeed, this was shaping up as one of the most anticipated games in years, a throwback to the era when coaching giants named Bear and Ara ruled the sidelines, when it was a big deal for teams from different parts of the country to meet in a bowl, when everyone took sides based on where they happened to live.
“I’m pretty aware of our history. I’ve become more aware of theirs over the past few months,” said Barrett Jones, the Crimson Tide’s All-American center. “I know that they are a very storied program. We both are. I think that’s part of what makes this matchup fun.”
ESPN executives were hopeful of getting the highest ratings of the BCS era. Tickets were certainly at a premium, with a seat in one of the executive suites going for a staggering $60,000 on StubHub the day before the game, and even a less-than-prime spot in the corner of the upper deck requiring a payout of more than $900.
“This is, to me, the ultimate matchup in college football,” said Brent Musberger, the lead announcer for ESPN.
For Alabama (12-1), this is a chance to be remembered as a full-fledged dynasty. The Tide will be trying to claim its third national championship in four years and become the first school to win back-to-back BCS titles, a remarkable achievement given the ever-increasing parity of the college game and having to replace five players from last year’s title team who were picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.
“To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,” Saban said Sunday. “If you look at all the players we lost last year, the leadership that we lost … I’m really proud of what this team was able to accomplish.”
That said, it’s not a huge surprise to find Alabama playing for another title. That’s not the case when it comes to Notre Dame.
Despite their impressive legacy, the Fighting Irish (12-0) weren’t even ranked at the start of the season. But overtime wins against Stanford and Pittsburgh, combined with three other victories by a touchdown or less, gave Notre Dame a shot at its first national title since 1988.
After so many lost years, the golden dome has reclaimed its luster in coach Brian Kelly’s third season.
This is the beginning, he said.
“Playing in this game is an incredible springboard into the next season,” Kelly said. “They’ve already been here. You come back the next year, it’s unacceptable for a standard to be any less than being back here again.”
Both Notre Dame and Alabama have won eight Associated Press national titles, more than any other school. They are the bluest of the blue bloods, the programs that have long set the bar for everyone else even while enduring some droughts along the way.
Kelly molded Notre Dame using largely the same formula that has worked so well for Saban in Tuscaloosa: a bruising running game and a stout defense, led by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te’o.
“It’s a little bit old fashioned in the sense that this is about the big fellows up front,” 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 unquestionably be decided up front.”
While points figure to be at a premium given the quality of both defenses, Alabama appears to have a clear edge on offense. The Tide has the nation’s highest-rated passer (AJ McCarron), two 1,000-yard rushers (Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon), a dynamic freshman receiver (Amari Cooper), and three linemen who made the AP All-America team (first-teamers Jones and Chance Warmack, plus second-teamer D.J. Fluker).
“That’s football at its finest,” said Te’o, who heads a defense that has given up just two rushing touchdowns. “It’s going to be a great challenge, and a challenge that we look forward to.”
The Crimson Tide had gone 15 years without a national title when Saban arrived in 2007, the school’s fifth coach in less than a decade (including one, Mike Price, who didn’t even made it to his first game in Tuscaloosa). Finally, Alabama got it right.
In 2008, Saban landed one of the greatest recruiting classes in school history, a group that has already produced eight NFL draft picks and likely will send at least three more players to the pros. The following year, he guided Alabama to a perfect season, beating Texas in the title game at Pasadena.
Last season, the Tide fortuitously got a shot at another BCS crown despite losing to LSU during the regular season and failing to even win its division in the Southeastern Conference. In a rematch against the Tigers, Alabama romped to a 21-0 victory at the Superdome.
The all-SEC matchup gave the league an unprecedented six straight national champions, hastening the end of the BCS. It will last one more season before giving way to a four-team playoff in 2014, an arrangement that was undoubtedly pushed along by one conference hoarding all the titles under the current system.
“Let’s be honest, people are probably getting tired of us,” Jones said. “We don’t really mind. We enjoy being the top dog and enjoy kind of having that target on our back, and we love our conference. Obviously, we’d rather not be a part of any other conference.”
The schools have played only six times, and not since 1987, but the first of their meetings is still remembered as one of the landmark games in college football history. Bear Bryant had one of his best teams at the 1973 Sugar Bowl, but Ara Parseghian and the Fighting Irish claimed the national title by knocking off top-ranked Alabama 24-23.
If you’re a longtime Notre Dame fan, you still remember Parseghian’s gutty call to throw the ball out of the end zone for a game-clinching first down. If you were rooting for the Tide, you haven’t forgotten a missed extra point that turned out to be the losing margin.
Of course, these Alabama players aren’t concerned about what happened nearly four decades ago.
For the most part, all they know is winning.
“You want to be remembered for something,” defensive lineman Damion Square said. “You live life to be remembered and do great things so that you can leave a legacy here when you’re gone.”