How do you figure out which team wins when two teams are almost mirror images of each other? When they win games the same way and got to the ultimate game the same way and act the same way? How in the world do you get any separation when it comes to Alabama and Notre Dame?
Because in almost every way, the Tide and the Fighting Irish are essentially the same team in different locations. The playing styles are similar, the head coaches are similar and the fan bases are similar. Tuscaloosa is South Bend with a Southern accent, or perhaps South Bend is Tuscaloosa without one. One of the reasons that this game is so intriguing tonight is that we are watching two programs that captivate college football even when they aren't relevant.
And suddenly, for the first time in almost 40 years, Alabama and Notre Dame meet with both having a plausible claim to the national title and the same field serving as a way to figure out which one is better. They are both relevant now. The three Mikes are gone and Charlie Weis is in Kansas. But in meeting again, Alabama and Notre Dame are really meeting each other.
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For one thing, neither of these teams should really be here. Not in the sense that they don't deserve to be here, mind you -- more in the sense that both have broken the mold to get to Miami tonight. There are certain things that just don't happen in college football, or at least haven't been happening in the BCS era, that will undeniably happen tonight.
Notre Dame is perhaps the most improbable. Simply by being in the game, the Irish have broken a longstanding rule of thumb that a team that is not in both polls in the preseason (and usually relatively high in those polls) will not end up in the national championship game in the postseason. While Notre Dame was not completely unranked this year -- they debuted at No. 24 in the coaches poll -- they were not a consensus Top 25 team before the season kicked off. No other team has ever gone from outside the consensus to playing for the crystal football since the BCS started.
Alabama is not as improbable, certainly not in terms of perception, but what they've done is still rare. Since the beginning of the streak in the 2006 season, no SEC team has made it to the BCS National Championship Game twice in a row. Certainly, no team has won the national title, lost five players in the first 35 picks of that year's NFL Draft, then turned around and gone 12-1 to capture the SEC Championship the next year. It's just not done that way, or at least not recently.
And in almost any way you look at it, Alabama made it to each of the last two national title games because of the football equivalent of lightning strikes. There was no way that the Tide was going to come back from losing to LSU last year to get a rematch with the Tigers -- until Oklahoma State became the last other undefeated team to fall, against Iowa State no less. And the odds of two of the three undefeated teams losing after Alabama fell to Texas A&M were exceedingly remote -- until both of them did so on the same night and put the Tide back in a win-and-get-in situation.
Teams of destiny? Maybe if you believe in destiny and teams of destiny. But the point remains that neither of these teams should be here.
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And yet they are largely by the same formula: A dominant defense backing up an offense that has its moments. In other words, SEC football.
Consider that in the game tonight, the No. 1 or No. 2 defenses in the FBS in the following categories will take the field: rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense and passing yardage defense. (Most of those units belong to Alabama.) With the exception of Alabama in sacks and both teams in tackles for loss, each of the teams ranks in the Top 25 in the FBS in every major defensive statistical category tracked by the NCAA. Both teams will likely cross the 50-yard line tonight, but they won't do it too frequently.
The offenses -- well, they're there. Alabama's offense seems to be a shade better, by about 20 yards or so, with most of that coming in the running game. The Tide does score a lot more than Notre Dame, averaging 38.5 points to 26.8 for the Irish -- and that drives the margin of victory substantially higher, with Alabama outscoring opponents by an average of 27.8 points while the Irish did so by an average of 16.4 points.
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The coaches and fan bases are also amazingly similar when you look at them, at least from the 10,000-foot level.
Neither Nick Saban or Brian Kelly are outwardly hostile to opponents or rivals, but neither are they warm. Both have been accused -- with some degree of accuracy -- of job-hopping before seeming to settle down at least a bit at their current locations. Both have drawn attention for their temper.
The fan bases are even more similar. They are among the highest-profile programs in the history of the game, with pedigrees that stretch back decades and include some of the most historic names in the game: Rockne. Bryant. Fans in Tuscaloosa do not tolerate failure well, nor do the faithful in South Bend, even if they might have experienced it a little more frequently in recent years. Both schools count among their fans hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, who will never earn a degree from the institution itself.
Not that much of that matters all that much when the game actually begins, but it's one of the reasons we are so captivated by it. Cheer for one team, cheer against another, but very few people who actually like college football are going to be neutral in a few hours when things kick off. There are too many memories and too many rivalries and too many people who either want to see the echoes put back to sleep or the SEC put back in its place for that.
What actually happens tonight? The Alabama offense is, as I said, just a little bit better than Notre Dame, while I think we'll find out that the defenses are both as good as advertised. It will be a tight game, worthy of the hype, but it will keep the streak going for another year -- however improbably.
Alabama 17, Notre Dame 13