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Like Notre Dame, Alabama has suffered, though not as enduringly. Bryant's last title was in 1979, and 13 years later Gene Stallings coached the Tide to a national championship with a victory over the dying Miami dynasty in the Sugar Bowl. But it would be 17 more years and four more coaches before Nick Saban brought the title back to Tuscaloosa, with another last season. That 17-year interregnum included an eight-loss season under Mike DuBose, a nine-loss season under Mike Shula and a total of 21 victories vacated from 2005 to '07 because of sanctions resulting from NCAA violations.
The Tide was ranked No. 1 in the nation this season before losing at home last month to Texas A&M and Heisman candidate Johnny Manziel (page 106), a defeat that seemed to end any hope of a third national title in four years. Yet Alabama went home and regrouped. As senior left guard Chance Warmack recalled after the SEC title game, "Our leadership group got together before practice Monday that week. We sat in the team-meeting room and said, Is this who we are? We talked to the whole team Thursday."
On Nov. 17, the Tide easily beat overmatched Western Carolina 49--0. That night a group of older players gathered in senior center Barrett Jones's apartment to watch two of the three teams ranked ahead of Alabama—Kansas State and Oregon—play their games. Notre Dame had already won that afternoon. "It was a very particular group of people," says Jones. "No girls. No fans. Those weren't the type of games you wanted to be watching and having people ask you what a first down is."
Kansas State was beaten by Baylor and Oregon by Stanford, moving Notre Dame to No. 1 and Alabama to No. 2. The Tide was back in the hunt. Jones went into the street outside his apartment to share the moment with 'Bama fans.
On Saturday night there was one more mountain to summit. When Georgia's Alec Ogletree took a blocked field goal 55 yards for a touchdown, the Bulldogs led 21--10 with 6:31 to play in the third quarter. Alabama responded with a four-play, 62-yard smashmouth drive, all but one snap on the ground, and made a two-point conversion to pull within three points. Another run-heavy drive gave Alabama the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter. "That's your favorite thing as an offensive lineman, when you know every play is a run, and [the defense] knows every play is a run, and they still can't stop you," said Jones. Georgia regained the lead with just under 13 minutes to play, but McCarron's play-action bomb to Cooper put the game back in Alabama's hands.
In the aftermath Alabama players were left to assess the epic meaning of an upcoming game against a legendary opponent whose legends are unknown to them. "I guess they had some good games in the '80s, right?" said Warmack. "I just know I watched them on TV, and the guy I saw was number 5, the linebacker." That would be Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's Heisman Trophy candidate.
The teams have played just six times, the first in that '73 Sugar Bowl, the second a year later in an Orange Bowl rematch won by the Irish 13--11 and the last on Nov. 14, 1987, when Notre Dame beat Alabama 37--6 in South Bend during Holtz's second season with the Irish. Overall, Notre Dame has won five of the meetings.
None of the later matchups were as memorable as the first. Bryant was running the wishbone offense that prolonged his career. Parseghian was running the wing T. Both teams were unbeaten, and the game, at Tulane Stadium, was moved to New Year's Eve, 1973. Notre Dame won 24--23, preserving the victory when quarterback Tom Clements completed a 35-yard pass to sophomore reserve tight end Robin Weber on third-and-eight from the Irish's three-yard line late in the game. It was a daring call that helped erase some of the stigma unfairly attached to Parseghian for sitting on a 10--10 tie with Michigan State seven years earlier.
It is instructive to scour online video from that Sugar Bowl. It is a game of its era: The uniforms are baggy and the lighting dim. The field is first-generation artificial turf, which looks like a pale green rug. But Notre Dame's helmets are a glowing gold and 'Bama's jerseys a deep crimson, as they are today. College football stands on the pillars of its history. Its lifeblood pumps through an artery that stretches back decades, providing comfort through procedural changes. ABC announcer Chris Schenkel intones at a critical juncture, "This is the dream match, the most important game of the year." His partner, Howard Cosell, adds, "At Notre Dame, football is a religion; at Alabama, it's a way of life."
Thirty-nine years later, it is ever thus.