Bear Bryant never coached an Alabama team to victory against Notre Dame. He was dead by the time the Crimson Tide finally managed the feat in 1986. The victory then, coming as it did at the beginning of a long, tortuous decline in Alabama’s football fortunes, briefly interrupted by the seven fat years of Bear protégé Gene Stallings in the nineties, hardly made up for the disappointments against the Irish, particularly in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, when each team entered the game undefeated and vying for first place in the Associated Press popularity poll. Notre Dame won the ’73 Sugar Bowl 24-23, in a defensive struggle. The coming clash in the BCS Championship game on January 7, 2013 will echo the ’73 contest. It too is sure to be a defensive struggle, as each team got to the game on the strength of their defensive side.
Both the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide fans like to claim “national championships” based on the Associated Press poll of sportswriters, or in Alabama’s case in 1973, on the United Press poll of college football coaches, the final version of which was rendered prior to the Sugar Bowl game. But really, championships should not be a matter of popularity or poll timing. Think about it for a moment. Sportswriters crown a national champion? Really? It’s absurd from every angle. Sportswriters have a vested interest in ensuring well-known and closely-followed teams always end up at the top. And what a bunch of hacks the lot of them are. And how can Alabama claim its team in 1973 deserves recognition as a “national” champion when it lost the only game outside its conference that mattered? Never mind the idiocy of believing a title could be legitimately bestowed by the popular vote of sportswriters, how about the idiocy of awarding the title before the season has even concluded? (The UPI coaches poll quit its policy of crowning national champions before the bowl games after the debacle of the 1973 season).
Yet the BCS Championship is as mythical as its predecessors. There won’t be a true national champion in big-time college football until at least every conference champion and a few wildcards (Alabama in 2011) and independents (Notre Dame this year) have a playoff once the regular season is over. Texas A & M, who is the only team thus far this season to beat Alabama, is possibly playing better football than any other team right now, but because of a couple of close losses early in the year, when its phenom freshman quarterback and now Heisman Trophy winner was just settling into his new persona as Johnny Football, we’ll never know if it would win out in a playoff (my bet is that it would). And what fun it would have been to watch! I’d love to see if Johnny Manziel and Texas A & M could beat Bama twice in a season, or if that first game was a bit of catching the Tide flat-footed. Alas, all we get is the chance to see if Texas A & M can beat a mediocre Oklahoma team (they can, and will) in an otherwise meaningless game played in the Cotton Bowl the Friday night before the mythical national championship.
Alabama should beat Notre Dame in the BCS Championship game. The Tide has better players at nearly every position. On average, its players are, bigger, stronger, faster and quicker than Notre Dame’s. Notre Dame needed a lot of luck (those plucky, lucky Irish) to get through its season undefeated. Alabama needed a little luck in one game (LSU) to get through with only one blemish. It was beaten in every way but the score in the LSU game, and was beaten on the scoreboard and on the field against A & M. Alabama is very good, and has better athletes than Notre Dame, and should be at least as well coached as Notre Dame, but it is not invincible.
I think the outcome will be determined by how Nick Saban, Alabama’s head coach, handles the game. Saban is capable of coaching his teams to brilliance (last year’s BCS Championship game) and of coaching them to flat, unprepared performances (Alabama’s loss to Utah in the 2008 Sugar Bowl). It depends on which Nick shows up. Notre Dame is hungry for a championship and Alabama is not (mythical though they are, Alabama can make this its third in four seasons). The trick for Nick is to find a way to make this Alabama team want a championship as bad as did last year’s version of the Tide, and at least close to as much as Notre Dame wants to win one. The 2009 Alabama team had no trouble wanting a championship, as it had been since 1992 since the Tide had last got one. It’s been since 1988 for Notre Dame. Championships, like everything else, are subject to the law of diminishing marginal returns. The more there are, and the more recently, the less they are desired. If Nick can somehow figure out a way to motivate his charges (and himself) to win this one, he deserves recognition as one of the greatest coaches of all time, in any sport. The last guy to win three championships in four years was Tom Osborne of Nebraska, who is generally regarded as one of the best ever. Saban will have earned his place alongside such greats as Osborne, and (dare I say it?) Bryant, if he can pull it off.
My guess is that in a close struggle, perhaps in a classic for the ages rivaling the ’73 Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame will luck out and win. The Irish are one of those teams that seemingly arise from nowhere to have everything click perfectly into place (like Auburn in 2010). Nobody picked them to even have a good season before the year started, but here they are, poised on the cusp of adding another title to the eleven or thirteen or whatever they claim. They got here by doing the little things well, by giving that extra quanta of effort at just the right moment to turn the tide (no pun intended) in their favor. You could see it in the goal line stand against USC, and earlier, in barely beating Pitt to keep the dream alive. Notre Dame is synergy personified, just as Alabama was in 2009, when it took a blocked field goal against a mediocre Tennessee team to preserve a perfect season. Alabama has become a machine since then. It wins by relentlessly wearing its opponents out with its size, speed, agility and quickness. Its best game was the SEC championship game against Georgia, and teams don’t usually have two such inspired performances back to back. It’ll be close, but I think the luck of the Irish will prevail in ’13. But it ought to be fun to watch, and after all is said and done, that, really, is the whole point of the exercise. Roll Tide!