MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The images will be vivid, history will be haunting, ghosts will be everywhere.
This is Knute Rockne versus Bear Bryant, Touchdown Jesus versus Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Four Horsemen versus Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Montana versus Joe Namath, and, of course, in the battle of the little guys, Rudy versus Nick.
It will be a football game bathed in a complicated mess of legend, religion and roughhousing, but most folks think Monday’s BCS national championship heavyweight fight between Alabama and Notre Dame can be symbolized by a single disparity.
It’s a leprechaun versus an elephant. It’s a Notre Dame mascot who belongs on a cereal box against an Alabama mascot that belongs in a zoo. It’s a team that hasn’t won a national title in 24 years against a team trying to win its third in four years. The bookmakers have made Alabama a nine-point favorite, surely making Notre Dame one of the biggest unbeaten underdogs in title-game history.
But there is one bit of Notre Dame lore for which Alabama has no answer. It occurred during another time the Irish faced a situation so dire. Notre Dame was 4-2 and facing an unbeaten Army team. The year was 1928, and maybe you’ve heard the story about the halftime speech when Coach Knute Rockne recounted the words of a former player.
“Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are going wrong and the breaks are beating the boys . . .”
Yep, Notre Dame and Rockne won one for the Gipper that day, beating Army, 12-6. It may sound corny, it may feel forced, but almost 85 years later, it’s still kids, and it’s still football, and the stage is set for a similar upset Monday.
In the six weeks since this apparent blowout was formalized — a lifetime in the world of a growing kid — accepted beliefs have been replaced by new realities. Just when the breaks seem to be beating the boys, there is evidence that the boys can beat back.
•The reality is that Alabama’s Southeastern Conference, which has won the last six BCS championships, is not the powerhouse frat of recent years.
During this bowl season, the conference’s two traditional powers have been embarrassed, with Florida and Louisiana State both losing. Even the Alabama players have noticed.
“Some people are too SEC-biased. . . . Don’t quote me on that, but you probably will,” said Alabama center Barrett Jones. “I think the SEC is probably, by a good margin, the best conference, but that doesn’t mean there’s not other good teams out there.”
Not only is the SEC down, but it turns out that Alabama’s schedule was also down, the Crimson Tide playing only six bowl teams while Notre Dame played eight in a schedule that did not include Florida Atlantic or Western Carolina.
“They didn’t have any cupcake games,” Jones said. “They don’t have a conference, they play name-brand opponents every week, and that takes a great deal of focus.”
•The reality is that the pregame passion of an Alabama team simply trying to stock its jewelry drawer has not matched the verve of a Notre Dame team trying to resurrect history. It just feels as though this game means more to the Irish.
Last week, the workmanlike Crimson Tide held a players-only meeting to adjust the team’s focus. Meanwhile, the giddy Irish haven’t been able to focus on anything else. Just listen to running back Cierre Wood:
“We’ve spent the last couple of years watching this on TV, looking at the flicking of the lights at the kickoff, the logos, the jerseys,” he said. “Now, the fact that we’re here, it’s awesome, it’s breathtaking, it’s more than anything I’ve ever been part of.”
•The reality is that defense wins these games, and Notre Dame has a better defense, particularly on the goal line, where its game-winning stands against Stanford and USC have already climbed into the Crimson Tide psyche.
“They have such excellent red-zone defense, it’s almost weird watching it, just something about it,” Jones said. “It’s something we’ve worked on a lot.”
•The reality is that mistakes lose this game, and Notre Dame is perhaps football’s smartest, most sound team. The Irish have not committed a turnover in their last six quarters, including playing mistake-free during a long, pressurized night against USC at the Coliseum.
“People look at points, but, for them, it’s about how well they manage the game,” said Damion Square, an Alabama defensive end. “It’s like, every time they touch the ball, they put together long drives, they put their defense into a great situation to be successful.”
•The reality is that Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is poised to take the same sort of bowl-game leap taken last year by Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
Golson is a redshirt freshman in a year when similar leaders — Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M;, Marcus Mariota of Oregon, Kevin Hogan of Stanford — all grew during the bowl break.
In his last five games, Golson has accounted for 10 touchdowns with his arm and feet while completing 59% of his passes and averaging nearly five yards per carry. He has become the kind of mobile quarterback who gives Alabama fits, as Manziel torched the Tide for 345 total yards in leading the Aggies to their upset win.
“There is probably only one player who has benefited as much from this time off, and that’s Everett Golson,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s gotten an opportunity for 31/2 weeks to continue to grow.”
•The reality is that Rockne, who lost only 12 of the 122 games he coached, was usually right.
“Yes, I know that you feel you are not strong enough; that’s what the enemy thinks too,” Rockne once said. “But we’re gonna fool them.”
It’s gonna happen again, Notre Dame fooling everyone with a victory in a game that feels like a Gipper speech. And, yeah, not to get all maudlin about it, but 12-6 sounds about right.