“This is, to me, the ultimate match-up 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, 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 Barrett 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 (including Jones). The following year, the coach 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.”
This title game certainly has a different feel than last year’s.
“That was really kind of a weird national championship because it was a team we already played,” Jones remembered. “It was kind of another SEC game. It was in the South, and it just had a very SEC feel to it obviously. This year is much more like the 2009 game (against Texas) for me. We’re playing an opponent that not only we have not played them, but no one we have played has played them (except for Michigan). So you don’t really have an exact measuring stick.”
In fact, these 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 long-time 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.