On one side, a blossoming dynasty from the college football capital of the Deep South. On the other, the sport’s most famous team, trying to reclaim its place among the elite.
Notre Dame and Alabama bring star power and power football to the BCS championship.
The matchup became official Sunday night when the final standings were released and, to no one’s surprise, the Fighting Irish were first and the Crimson Tide was second.
The one bit of drama on college football’s selection Sunday was whether Northern Illinois could be this year’s BCS buster. The Huskies got in, getting a spot in the Orange Bowl against Florida State, taking a bid away from Oklahoma and sparking heated debate about a system that never fails to tick off fans in some way.
As for the main event in the penultimate Bowl Championship Series, there was little controversy: No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 Alabama in Miami on Jan. 7.
The Irish clinched their spot a week ago in Los Angeles by completing a perfect season against rival Southern California.
Alabama earned its spot Saturday, beating Georgia 32-28 in a thrilling Southeastern Conference title game.
The program that coach Paul Bryant turned into an SEC behemoth in the 1960s and 70s, winning five national championships and sharing another during his tenure, is again dominating college football with a modern-day version of the Bear leading the way in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are on the verge of one of the great runs in history. Alabama would become the first team to repeat as champs since the BCS was implemented in 1998, and it would be the 11th time a team has won consecutive AP titles since the poll started in 1936. Alabama is already one of seven programs to repeat. The Tide has done it twice. Notre Dame is another.
Alabama also won the 2009 BCS championship under Saban. The last team to win three major national titles in four seasons was Nebraska, which went back-to-back in 1994 and ‘95 and finished No. 1 in the final coaches’ poll in 1997.
In a world full of spread-the-field, hurry-up offenses, Alabama is a bastion of traditional football.
The Tide put its no-frills muscle on display Saturday, mashing Georgia with 350 yards rushing, most impressively when Alabama trailed 21-10 in the second half and you might have expected the Tide to open up its passing game.
Eddie Lacy, listed at a conservative 220 pounds, went for 181 against the Bulldogs to up his season total to 1,182 with 17 touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon, at 216 pounds, provides more speed with his punch. The freshman has run for 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
But this is no 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Both backs average over 6 yards per carry, behind an offensive line anchored by All-American center Barrett Jones. And quarterback AJ McCarron has thrown for 26 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
The Tide has been more potent offensively this season than last to make up for a defense that has slipped, but only a bit. Alabama leads the nation in total defense (246 yards per game) and is second in points allowed (10.7 per game). Linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Nico Johnson, CJ Mosley and Trey Depriest average 242 pounds.
When Brian Kelly was hired at Notre Dame three years ago, he looked at Alabama and the SEC, which has won six straight BCS titles, and decided the Irish needed to play like that.
Kelly built his reputation and winning teams at previous stops on fast-paced spread offenses. In South Bend, Ind., he has put the fight back in the Irish, who have won eight AP national titles — only Alabama has as many — but none since 1988.
Notre Dame has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (10) and is sixth overall in total defense (286 yards per game).
The Irish will try to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start the season unranked and win a national title.