FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The most widely stated theory about why Notre Dame allegedly has no chance in the BCS championship game against Alabama is the vast superiority of the Crimson Tide's league, the Southeastern Conference.
The Crimson Tide was tested at the highest level, the theory went. They went through a meat-grinder schedule no school outside the SEC could comprehend or survive. Certainly not some fancy-pants independent program that sprinkled service academies and low-level ACC opponents between its few big games.
You've heard it. I've heard it. Touchdown Jesus has heard it.
So you can bet the Fighting Irish players have heard it, too.
There's just one problem with that theory: The SEC hasn't been so superior this bowl season. After Florida's flop in the Sugar Bowl on Wednesday night, the League of Extraordinary Football – and Extraordinary Arrogance – is a measly 3-3, with three bowl games left. (Remaining contests: Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl; Mississippi vs. Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl; and Alabama-Notre Dame.)
The Gators were routed from opening snap to closing gun by Louisville, a 14-point underdog. That followed an upset loss by LSU to six-point underdog Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and a convincing loss by Mississippi State to mild favorite Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. That's losses to representatives of the Big East, ACC and Big Ten, three leagues SEC fans love to look down upon.
The SEC bowl victories were a last-minute escape by South Carolina against underdog Michigan, a second-half comeback by Georgia to beat underdog Nebraska and exactly one dominant victory, by Vanderbilt against 7-6 North Carolina State.
This has not been the customary Southern muscle flex at bowl time. The SEC's supposed superiority in speed, power and physical football just hasn't been in evidence – not the way opponents have gone up and down the field and scored points. With two more defeats, the league would have its first losing bowl record since 2002.
For once, the league that has won the last six national championships looks like it's been overhyped. Maybe the meat grinder wasn't so brutal this year after all.
That should tone down the dismissive rhetoric from many SEC fans, who have been saying since Thanksgiving that Notre Dame would be a mid-pack team in their league. It was dumb then and dumber now, with the SEC at least partially defrocked by recent bowl results.
A whole lot of SEC backers believed Florida had a legitimate argument to play in the title game. After being humiliated by Louisville in a game the Cardinals led by double digits for the last 51 minutes and 47 seconds, that argument is gone.
"I was surprised," admitted Alabama center Barrett Jones. "I think that was a reminder that it's not about who the better team is, it's who plays a better game that day."
And that extends to the title game here. Just showing up with an SEC logo and last year's title behind them is not going to guarantee the Crimson Tide a victory against Notre Dame. The Irish watched what Louisville and Clemson did, and you know they enjoyed those outcomes after being bombarded with SEC hype. Much like the Cardinals and Tigers, they're a fat underdog (9½ points), and they're OK with that.
"Everyone's talking about the SEC and things like that," said Irish safety Zeke Motta. "Being an underdog is not necessarily a bad thing in a situation like this."
I asked Motta if he took note of surprising SEC losses. He said yes, then couched his thoughts in as much diplomacy as he could muster.
"There's no telling with football," said Motta. "That's why it's such a great sport. Louisville put up 30 points (actually 33) against a good defense. They came to work and showed up on game day, and that's what it's about. I'm looking forward to it."
Thing is, Alabama feels like the last program on earth that would sleepwalk from early December to early January. The Crimson Tide did it once under Nick Saban, being stunned in the Sugar Bowl by Utah four years ago, and have been super-prepared for every bowl game since.
With a national title on the line, anyone counting on a complacent Alabama showing up Monday night is going to be wrong.
"Just because a couple teams were upset, it doesn't have an effect on how Alabama is going to come out and play," said Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley.
He's right. If anything, watching Florida and LSU lose should eradicate any SEC smugness the Crimson Tide might have harbored.
But those surprising bowl results should also give further confidence to the Irish. The SEC has been demystified. Its best teams are beatable, no matter what the Southern football supremacists have been saying since Thanksgiving.
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