- Associated Press - Saturday, December 29, 2012

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (AP) - The pub is called the Blue Leprechaun _ and the name pretty much says it all.

Notre Dame isn’t too popular along this strip of bars and restaurants within walking distance of Michigan Stadium, and at this lively establishment, a couple leprechaun heads wearing Wolverine-colored hats smile out at the street from an exterior awning.

Ryan Gardner works inside, and like almost everyone in town, he’s a Michigan fan. So it was a touch startling to hear him declare his allegiance _ such as it is _ for the BCS championship game.

“I would like to see Notre Dame win,” he said.

The 26-year-old Gardner wasn’t exactly humming the “Notre Dame Victory March” while sizing up this Jan. 7 title tilt between two teams that defeated his Wolverines this season. He’s one of many fans across the country reflecting on a question with no easy answer, trying to choose between Notre Dame and Alabama, two of the most successful _ and most resented _ programs in college football.

So who does America dislike more, the Fighting Irish or the Crimson Tide? For unattached observers from Michigan to Texas, that’s shaping up to be one tough call.

“I don’t like Alabama more than I don’t like Notre Dame,” Gardner said.

Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since 1988, and the Irish were largely irrelevant for two decades before coach Brian Kelly’s team strung together a dozen victories this season to earn a spot opposite Alabama in the title game. Now, comparisons with the Yankees, Lakers and every other polarizing sports sensation seem appropriate again.

Notre Dame recently reached the top of the AP poll for the first time since 1993. Cue the usual prattle about Rockne, Rudy, the Four Horsemen et. al.

“We are going to have to deal with the lore again, God help us,” Charles Pierce wrote grudgingly last month in a piece for Grantland.com.

But when Notre Dame (12-0) takes the field in Miami to play for the national title _ still not part of a football conference, still raking in money via its one-of-a-kind TV contract with NBC _ the Irish won’t be facing some random opponent. They’ll be up against Alabama, Nick Saban’s dynasty-in-progress that’s been Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammering opponents into the ground for most of the last five years.

A victory over Notre Dame would give the second-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) a third national championship in four seasons. You can practically hear the “S-E-C!” chant already.

“The question is, who are you less sick of?” said David Bazzel, who played at Arkansas during the 1980s and now hosts a radio show for KABZ of Little Rock. “The hatred of Notre Dame. … If you don’t have that hatred of Alabama as much, it’s that we’re tired of them winning.”

That’s part of Gardner’s rationale. Alabama’s BCS title last season was the sixth in a row for the Southeastern Conference.

“I’m not really an SEC-affiliated fan. I actually went to an SEC school (Tennessee) for my first couple years of college, but I never really got attached to SEC sports,” Gardner said. “It’s a powerful conference _ but never rooted for them.”

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