NEW YORK – 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.
The other BCS matchups:
• Oregon and Kansas State will play in the Fiesta Bowl.
• Wisconsin and Stanford will meet in the Rose Bowl.
• Florida and Louisville are set for the Sugar Bowl.
As for the main event in the penultimate Bowl Championship Series, there was little controversy about No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 Alabama in Miami.
“The tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame brings special attention to it, but we’re just trying to the best team on Monday, Jan. 7,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday night. “All of that tradition, what’s happened in the past, is not going to help us Jan. 7, but we do respect the traditions.”
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.
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. Freshman T.J. Yeldon 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, who is nursing a foot injury.
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).
“It’s clear that the formation of any great program is going to be on its defense,” Kelly said. “If you play great defense you’ve got a chance. For us to move Notre Dame back into national prominence we had to develop a defense.”
The face of the Irish isn’t a strong-armed quarterback or speedy ball carrier. It’s middle linebacker Manti Te’o, a 255-pound offense wrecker with a nose for the ball. The senior has seven interceptions and is a likely Heisman finalist.
Te’o, along with 300-pound linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, have formed a red-zone wall for the Irish. Late goal-line stands highlighted victories against Stanford and USC.
“There’s some pretty physical guys that have some great toughness and some great licks,” Saban said in assessing Notre Dame.
While nurturing redshirt freshman Everett Golson, Kelly has leaned on Notre Dame’s running game, which averages 202 yards.
“This is just a good all-around football team with tremendous balance on offense and a very physical defense,” Saban said.
If Notre Dame, making its first appearance in a BCS championship, is going to break the SEC’s strangle hold on the crystal ball trophy, the Irish will try to beat ‘Bama at its own game.
And Kelly will try to uphold a Notre Dame tradition, by winning a national title in his third season as coach. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won it all in Year 3 playing in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
Notre Dame will try to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start the season unranked and win a national title.
Expect plenty of fans to be watching. With the popularity of both programs, the second-to-last BCS title game is expected to be the highest rated ever. Though it might be hard for many fans to choose. While there are plenty of fans tired of watching the SEC win championships, Notre Dame has always been the program people love to hate.
“I don’t know if we picked up any more fans along the way,” Kelly said.
In two years, college football switches to a four-team playoff to determine its champion. No doubt fans of Florida (11-1), Oregon (11-1), Stanford (11-2) and Kansas State (11-1) wish they could push the start date up on that, but for the most part there isn’t much griping about this championship matchup.
Notre Dame is the only undefeated team that is eligible — thanks to Ohio State’s NCAA sanctions — and Alabama is the champion of the league that has produced the last half-dozen national champs.
Roll Tide or return to glory? To be determined in South Florida.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap