Irish vs. Tide is ‘not any other game’

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly watches his team during overtime against Stanford in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) Show caption
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly watches his team during overtime against Stanford in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

MIAMI — Sometimes the buildup overwhelms what actually happens on the field.

Certainly, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama would have to play nothing less than a classic to live up to the hype for Monday’s BCS Championship Game.

Before either team stepped on the field in balmy South Florida, this was shaping up as one of the most anticipated games in years — a throwback to the era when Keith Jackson & Co. called one game a week, when it was a big deal for teams from different parts of the country to meet in a bowl game, when everyone took sides based on where they happened to live.

North vs. South. Rockne vs. Bear. The Fighting Irish vs. the Crimson Tide. College football’s most storied programs, glorified in movie and song, facing off for the biggest prize.

“It’s definitely not any other game,” Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley said.

For the Crimson Tide (12-1), this is a chance to be remembered as a full-fledged dynasty. Alabama will be trying to claim its third championship in four years and become the first school to win back-to-back BCS titles, a remarkable achievement given the 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,” coach Nick 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.

The Fighting Irish (12-0) weren’t 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.

“It starts with setting a clear goal for the program,” Kelly said. “Really, what is it? Are we here to get to a bowl game, or are we here to win national championships? So the charge immediately was to play for championships and win a national championship.”

Notre Dame and Alabama each 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.

ESPN executives hope to get 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.com on Sunday, and even a less-than-prime spot in the corner of the upper deck required a payout of more than $900.

“This is, to me, the ultimate matchup in college football,” said Brent Musberger, the lead announcer for ESPN.

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.”

Points figure to be at a premium given the quality of both defenses, but 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 (former Dutchtown standout Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon), a dynamic freshman receiver (Amari Cooper), and three linemen who made the AP All-America team (first-teamers Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack, plus second-teamer D.J. Fluker).

“That’s football at its finest,” said Te’o, who leads 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 title when Saban arrived in 2007, the school’s fifth coach in less than a decade. Finally, Alabama got it right.

In 2008, Saban landed one of the greatest recruiting classes in school history, a group that already has produced eight NFL draft picks and likely will send at least three more players to the pros. The following year, the coach guided Alabama to a perfect season, beating Texas in the title game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Last season, the Tide got a shot at another BCS crown despite losing to LSU during the regular season and failing to win its division in the Southeastern Conference. In a rematch against the Tigers, Alabama romped to a 21-0 victory in New Orleans.

These schools have met just 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.

Of course, these Alabama players aren’t concerned about what happened nearly four decades ago.

For the most part, all they know is winning.

“There’s a lot of tradition that goes into Alabama football,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “And our plan is to keep that tradition alive.”