Notre Dame is perhaps the most storied program in college football, a team that played up to its championship history in a resurgent season that has it on the cusp of another title.
Earning it will require knocking off defending BCS champion Alabama, another tradition-rich team that’s back to dominating the sport the way the Fighting Irish also once did.
Top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama meet in Miami on Monday night in a dream matchup for the national championship - one that appeared unlikely to happen until late in the season - with the outright lead in Associated Press national titles also on the line.
It’s been 24 years since the Irish won a championship, closing out an undefeated 1988 season by beating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. After a 12-0 regular season, this year’s team has the chance to match that feat.
In his third year in South Bend, Brian Kelly can join legendary coaches such as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz as the coach of a champion Notre Dame team, having returned the Irish to national prominence.
“The tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame brings special attention to it, but we’re just trying to be the best team on Monday, Jan. 7,” said Kelly, the AP coach of the year and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award winner. “All of that tradition, what’s happened in the past, is not going to help us Jan. 7, but we do respect the traditions.”
One tradition that he certainly hopes continues is the championship aura that surrounds Irish coaches in their third season. Parseghian, Leahy, Holtz and Dan Devine won titles in Year 3.
Notre Dame even playing for a title is something that some observers - and perhaps even alumni - weren’t sure they would see again anytime soon. The Irish have often failed to draw top-tier talent in recent years as many believed their days of contending for championships was in the past.
Of course, until late last month, it looked like Notre Dame’s drought would continue. Going into games of Nov. 17, the Irish needed what appeared to be too much help to make the title game, as it trailed Kansas State and Oregon in the BCS standings.
The standings that came out the next day had Notre Dame with a decisive hold on the top spot, which it cemented a week later with a 22-13 victory over Southern California.
The Irish won that game the same way they have all season - their smothering defense giving their grind-it-out offense enough opportunities to win.
“Well, that’s who we are,” said Kelly, whose team won six times by nine or fewer points. “It’s been our defense all year. Our offense is able to manage enough points.”
That was certainly the case in Notre Dame’s biggest scare of the year, a 29-26 triple-overtime victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 3 in which the Irish trailed 20-6 going into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame held the Panthers scoreless in the final period and Everett Golson threw a pair of touchdown passes before running for the winning score in OT.
Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o is perhaps most responsible for that winning formula. The senior linebacker had seven interceptions and 103 tackles, and proved to be the heart and emotional leader of the Irish.
“We’re going to fight,” Te’o said after the USC win. “That’s our name. It doesn’t matter where we are.”
Te’o won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s most outstanding player, became the third defensive player to win the Walter Camp Award as player of the year and also took home the Bednarik Award as top defensive player and the Butkus Award as top linebacker.
While the long hiatus until the BCS championship game has ended up being a hindrance for a number of recent participants, Kelly thinks the 44-day break will prove to be a benefit - especially for Te’o, who’s had to make the rounds of the awards circuit following the long regular season.
“He’s burned out. There’s no question. He’s on fumes,” Kelly said.
An expectedly refreshed Te’o will have plenty of help on a defense loaded with other playmakers. Stephon Tuitt had 12 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, Prince Shembo added 7 1/2 sacks and 10 1/2 tackles for loss and Kapron Lewis-Moore contributed six sacks and 8 1/2 tackles for loss.
Notre Dame led the country with 10.3 points allowed per game and was sixth with 288.1 yards. With the 303-pound Tuitt and 326-pound nose tackle Louis Nix, the Irish may be one of the few teams with the size up front necessary to handle a powerful Alabama offensive line anchored by All-American center Barrett Jones.
Notre Dame’s big and physical defense is no coincidence, as Kelly eyed SEC teams such as Alabama amid the conference’s current run of six straight BCS titles and determined that the Irish would have to build a similar roster.
“Coach (Nick) Saban has put together the program that all (teams) want to model after,” Kelly said. “… We’re trying to put our program together the same way.”
Beating this SEC opponent, though, may prove more difficult than playing similar to it. For the Irish to add to their championship legacy, they’ll have to go through an experienced and battle-tested defending national champion.
Like Notre Dame, Alabama (12-1) looked to be out of the BCS title game picture after being upset 29-24 by then-No. 15 Texas A&M on Nov. 10. The losses by Kansas State and Oregon, though, pushed the Crimson Tide into second in the BCS rankings of Nov. 18.
They stayed there by winning their last three contests and rallying from 11 down to beat Georgia 32-28 in the SEC championship game Dec. 1, taking what was in effect a play-in for the BCS title game.
Alabama persevered much like last season, when it reached the title game after a loss to LSU appeared to put it out of the running. Having overwhelmed the powerful Tigers 21-0 in the rematch for the national title, Saban’s team is looking for its third championship in four seasons.
“It’s just the never-give-up attitude,” quarterback A.J. McCarron said. “You’ve got to keep fighting through it.”
As dominant as the Irish have been on defense, the Tide have arguably been better. Alabama was second to Notre Dame with 10.7 points allowed a game and first with 246.0 yards per contest.
The Tide’s deep defense recorded 34 sacks, 81 tackles for loss and 17 interceptions.
“I … couldn’t be prouder of what this team has accomplished this season,” Saban said. “We had a young team coming back … and for this team now to have a chance to go back to the national championship game is a little unprecedented.
“They could have taken the idea that ‘Hey, we won it last year, we can take it easy this year,’ but this team made a commitment, did a lot of hard work. It’s a challenge that the coaches accepted and the players accepted, and I just can’t be prouder of a group of guys.”
Though this might prove to be a low-scoring affair given the powerful defenses, the Tide could have the advantage on the offensive side of the ball.
Alabama’s 38.5 points per game are 15th in the FBS. Led by McCarron (26 touchdowns, three interceptions, 173.1 passer rating) and with a ground attack that boasts two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon - the duo ran for 27 TDs - the Tide were rarely contained offensively. Alabama topped 400 yards 10 times and 500 four times.
The Tide had 512 against the Bulldogs, rushing for a season-high 350 yards despite Georgia stacking the line to shut down Lacy and Yeldon. McCarron took advantage of that on the winning score, employing play action and finding Amari Cooper for a 45-yard TD with 3:15 to play.
In contrast to the experience of McCarron, Notre Dame relies on the impressive redshirt freshman Golson to key its run-heavy offense. Having proved steady and poised despite his inexperience, Golson threw for 2,135 yards and 11 scores with five interceptions for a 131.8 rating, while rushing for 305 yards and five touchdowns.
Theo Riddick (880 yards rushing) and Cierre Wood (740) helped to power an offense that’s 11th in the nation in time of possession at 32 minutes, 34 seconds per game. Notre Dame is averaging 202.5 rushing yards.
“This is just a good all-around football team with tremendous balance on offense and a very physical defense,” Saban said of the Irish.
While the seemingly obvious strategy on defense for Alabama would be to make Golson beat it through the air, that approach didn’t work in Notre Dame’s last four games. The efficient Golson threw for at least 200 yards in each and totaled seven touchdowns and two interceptions in that span, completing more than 60 percent of his passes.
These teams have each won eight AP national titles, more than any other program. They can only hope to match the drama of the last time they met for a championship, when the Parseghian-led Irish beat Bear Bryant and the Tide 24-23 in the 1973 Sugar Bowl to win the AP title.
The squads matched up again the next season in the Orange Bowl, with the Irish winning 13-11. Those were among six all-time meetings, five of which have been won by Notre Dame. The last one came in 1987, a 37-6 Irish victory.
Notre Dame is expected to continue its tradition under Kelly of wearing names on the backs of its iconic jerseys for its bowl game - a move that’s sometimes proved controversial among alumni and traditionalists.