In 'Bama and Notre Dame, BCS title pits storied teams fans love to hate
The Alabama-Notre Dame title matchup features two programs that elicit backlash
Northern Illinois busted the BCS and introduced a new coach in the same weekend
Plus: Rose, Fiesta breakdowns; spreading the field; La. Tech misses a bowl; more
So, who will you be rooting for on Jan. 7, America? Better question: Who will you not be rooting against?
The BCS title game between Notre Dame and Alabama is not just a matchup of two storied programs (a combined 18 official national championships, and about 27 more they claim), a clash of fantastic defenses (No. 1 and 2, respectively, in points allowed) and the A.C. Nielsen equivalent of winning the lottery (this will unquestionably be the highest-rated title game since USC-Texas.) It's a collision of two mythologies that nonpartisan fans across the country love to hate.
It's Notre Dame, the unduly hyped, perennially overrated golden child that thinks it's too good to join a conference, against Alabama, the reigning juggernaut of the unduly hyped, perennially overrated SEC -- the better-than-everyone conference for the past six years.
There are a whole lot of people out there, on a typical Saturday, who love nothing more than to see the Fighting Irish lose and Nick Saban to take one on the chin. This game, you only get to pick one.
I put out an informal Twitter survey on Sunday morning to gauge where on the spectrum the hate meter currently stands. Besides getting back a whole bunch of jokes about rooting for meteor strikes or the Mayans, it appears the anti-SEC crowd outnumbers the anti-ND crowd.
"It's like choosing between smallpox and the plague but I'm for ND just this once," wrote one respondent. "Wouldn't mind seeing the SEC knocked down a peg."
"SEC run must end," wrote another. "Who better to do it than God's team?"
Yes, the SEC backlash has grown that deep. It's become so prevalent that for possibly the first time since the 1920s, Notre Dame may (very briefly) become America's team.
"I don't know about that," Irish coach Brian Kelly said on Sunday night. "I think there's still a dividing line, where it's 50-50. I was in Atlanta [on Saturday, for ESPN's College GameDay] and the Georgia cheerleaders were booing me. ... I don't know that we picked up any more fans along the way."
Ah, but you're underestimating one factor, Brian. And that is, for once, your Irish are pegged as the cuddly underdogs. As my colleague Michael Rosenberg wrote from the seat to my right at the Georgia Dome on Saturday, it becomes infinitely harder to convince yourself Notre Dame can win after seeing the Crimson Tide in person.
I've covered the Irish twice (against Oklahoma and USC) and could not have been more impressed with the way they played, particularly on defense. But Saturday's SEC Championship Game was my first time seeing Alabama in person since its opener against Michigan, and it served as a convenient reminder (lest I'd forgotten during the three-month period in between) that the Tide are so ... darn ... big.
Complain all you want about favoritism in the polls, FCS foes, oversigning or whatever else. But trust me, tales of Alabama's superior athleticism are no media creation. I was reminded of that every time D.J. Fluker (6-foot-6, 335 pounds) plowed over a Georgia defensive lineman, every time Eddie Lacy (6-foot, 220 pounds) bulldozed a Georgia safety and every time one of the Tide's disproportionately sized linebackers came bearing down on Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray.
Alabama will be installed as the favorite for a reason. But that hardly guarantees a Tide victory.
For one thing, Saban's 2012 team is far from invincible. Despite rushing for 350 yards, it needed a last-second C.J. Mosley deflection (and some questionable Georgia clock management) to survive the Dawgs on Saturday. As was the case against LSU and Texas A&M, quarterback AJ McCarron was sloppy at times (two first-half turnovers), though he did wind up throwing the go-ahead 45-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper. And well before Georgia's Murray threw for 265 yards and a score, LSU's Zach Mettenberger and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel showed there are sieves in this Tide defense that didn't exist in 2009 and '11.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, has barely had a defensive breakdown all season. Granted, it has yet to face an offensive line as physical as Alabama's (because there isn't one outside of the NFL), but you can bet those defenders will not be intimated.
We'll have the next five weeks to further dissect the matchup, but in reality, that's a fruitless exercise. As we've seen year after year, the teams in the drawn-out BCS championship game often bear little resemblance to those that played in the first 12 or 13 games. There are too many variables to account for with such a long layoff. Coaches change jobs. Players go home for Christmas and eat junk food; others get distracted by agent and looming draft deadline decisions. Injured players get healthy and vice versa.
The only things we can be certain about with Notre Dame-Alabama are that a whole lot of people are going to watch it, and that a whole lot of those same people will be conflicted throughout. Here's one thing they can probably all agree on: After so many recent title-game clunkers, it would be fantastic if the Tide and Irish produced the type of classic that fans of so many previous generations enjoyed.
In March, we celebrate Cinderella. In December, we apparently rip her apart.
The vicious reaction so far to Northern Illinois' surprising Orange Bowl berth has been a bit odd. You would think the Huskies had knocked Alabama out of the national championship game rather than 10-2 Oklahoma out of the Sugar Bowl. ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit went on television Sunday night and said: "The fact that Northern Illinois is in the BCS in 2012 is a really sad state for college football."
Certainly, on paper, the 12-1 Huskies are less deserving than their BCS-busting predecessors. For one thing, they're not undefeated. For another, they lack a signature nonconference win like previous BCS-bound Utah, Boise State and TCU teams. In fact, NIU's profile is not altogether different than that of Hawaii in 2007. We remember how that turned out.
But what is it about college football that makes us so adverse to the underdog? On Jan. 1, an unheralded team from DeKalb, Ill., will attempt to knock off a name-brand power in Florida State. Its quarterback, Jordan Lynch, who ranks one spot behind Johnny Manziel on the NCAA total offense list, will get a chance to shine on the big stage much like all those mid-major hoops stars of March. Is this really such a bad thing?
And that's before the remarkable story of Rod Carey, the Huskies' head coach since ... about 90 minutes before Herbstreit made his comments.
How's this for a life-changing weekend? On Friday night, Carey -- a second-year staff member who moved up to offensive coordinator after the Huskies' season-opening Iowa loss due to predecessor Mike Dunbar's bout with cancer -- called the plays for NIU's 44-37 double-overtime victory against Kent State in the MAC Championship Game. He and the Huskies arrived home from Detroit around 6 a.m. About five hours later, Carey's boss, Dave Doeren, called to tell Carey he was taking NC State's vacant head-coaching job.
A whirlwind interview process ensued, and on Sunday afternoon, when SI's Pete Thamel broke the news that NIU had cracked the top 16 in the BCS standings, Carey, 41, was meeting with school officials to finalize his hiring. He didn't even catch word about the Orange Bowl until seeing it on ESPN's selection show.
"I had pressing things," said Carey, a former Indiana offensive lineman. "We were talking about the future of the program, not one game. I had no idea until it came on that TV."
Nor has Carey had time to process the fact he'll be making his head-coaching debut against 11-2 Florida State in a BCS bowl game.
"If someone wrote a short book and could rewind time and could have followed me around around from [the beginning of the season], they wouldn't believe what they're writing," said Carey.
So -- what was that again about a sad state for college football?