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THE REMINDER WAS DIRECTLY BEHIND HIM, A MURAL-SIZED photograph of Mark Ingram hoisting the BCS trophy after the 2010 national championship game. This was last April, and as AJ McCarron sat in a windowless conference room in the Alabama football offices, that image was on his mind: The Crimson Tide's junior quarterback was already contemplating the path Alabama would need to take in order to win a third BCS title in four years—a feat last accomplished by Nebraska in 1997. "You need some things to break your way and you need to make plays when you have to, because an entire season will be defined by a few key moments," he said. "It's really that simple."
McCarron's prescient words succinctly describe why Alabama and Notre Dame are the teams that will play in the BCS national title game. During the season both teams enjoyed good fortune: After losing to Texas A&M 29--24 in mid-November, Alabama climbed back to No. 2 in the polls when Kansas State and Oregon were upset; Notre Dame survived an overtime game against Pittsburgh on Nov. 3 after the Panthers missed a potentially game-winning field goal. And both teams made critical plays when it mattered most: McCarron threw a game-winning pass to T.J. Yeldon in the last minute against LSU on Nov. 3; the Irish defense stiffened for a late goal line stand against USC on Nov. 24. Now these two storied programs, a combined 27 national championships between them, will meet for the first time since 1987 to play for the 2012 title.
Notre Dame has won 13 of those titles but none since 1988, having gone through three coaches in 13 years before Brian Kelly arrived in 2009 and began to right the program. "[We've] brought the fight back into the Fighting Irish," Kelly says. "I love the development of our football team and where we're going."
But does Notre Dame have enough fight to take down defending champion Alabama, which hasn't lost a game to a school outside of the SEC since the 2009 season and is widely considered a touchdown favorite over the Irish? Perhaps, mostly because Notre Dame boasts a defense that looks and plays like an SEC unit. When Kelly arrived in South Bend, he was known for his pass-happy, spread offenses that had generated video-game-type statistics in his previous stints at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. But at Notre Dame, Kelly changed his blueprint. For the first time he emphasized defense in his recruiting—aggressively targeting four- and five-star players at lineman, linebacker and defensive back—and the result has been impressive: Notre Dame finished this regular season No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense and sixth in total defense.
The key player in the Irish's 3--4 alignment is senior middle linebacker Manti Te'o. A Heisman finalist, Te'o is a sure-handed tackler (he led the Irish with 103 total stops this season) and is as instinctual as any player in college football (he also had seven interceptions). When the Crimson Tide hammers the ball between the tackles with tailbacks Eddie Lacy and Yeldon—the two combined to rush for 334 yards in Alabama's 32--28 win over Georgia in the SEC title game—the task of Notre Dame's three starting down linemen (defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt and noseguard Louis Nix III) will be to occupy blockers so Te'o and fellow linebackers Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Danny Spond can zero in on the ball. This won't be easy for the Irish; Alabama's offensive line features three players (left guard Chance Warmack, center Barrett Jones and right tackle D.J. Fluker) who are projected as first-round NFL draft picks next April and all of whom specialize in blocking power-run plays, which is Nick Saban's offensive staple.
"We feel like when we have our running game going we can't be stopped," says Jones. "But it's also nice to know that we have AJ."
Indeed, McCarron has been an almost ideal Saban quarterback this season: He rarely makes mistakes (only three interceptions in 286 attempts); he has a high completion percentage (66.8); and he excels at throwing the deep ball (witness his 45-yard, game-winning pass to Amari Cooper against Georgia). But the one time in 2012 that Alabama struggled in the running game was in its Nov. 10 loss to Texas A&M, which forced McCarron to attempt a season-high 34 passes, two of which were picked off. So regardless of McCarron's attributes, the strategy for the Fighting Irish D remains simple: Stop the run and make the quarterback throw.
This, of course, is the goal of Alabama's defense as well, even though it has been vulnerable to the pass. The Crimson Tide led the nation in total defense and rushing defense, but LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw for a career-high 298 yards against 'Bama, and the Aggies' Johnny Manziel stamped his invitation to the Heisman ceremony against the Crimson Tide by passing for 253 yards and rushing for another 92. Saban has long professed a fear of running quarterbacks like Manziel, so it's likely that the Irish's Everett Golson will be haunting Saban's nightmares as the game approaches. It's clear that Golson, a 6-foot, 185-pound redshirt freshman, will be the most important player on the field for the Irish on Jan. 7.
Early in the season Golson was a boom-or-bust quarterback, throwing a beautiful touchdown pass one play and a head-scratching interception the next. But after he was benched for the third time this season, against Pittsburgh, Golson returned to the field in the second half that afternoon and led the Irish on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives—a performance that finally earned him Kelly's trust. In the three games after he directed that comeback against the Panthers, Golson had only one interception, tossed five touchdown passes and passed for a total of 763 yards. At his best Golson is a dynamic pass-run threat in the mold of Manziel, able to improvise and turn a seemingly doomed play into a spectacular success. Against Alabama, he'll need to play his best for Notre Dame to have a real chance. "I think I've progressed a lot," says Golson.
Has he progressed enough to lead the Irish to an upset over the Crimson Tide? Or will the Tide continue its ferocious roll? Late in the evening of Jan. 7 in South Florida, either a dynasty will be cemented or a rebirth will be completed.