Here under the glare of the South Florida sun and the spotlight of college football’s grandest stage, two programs with the sport’s richest blood lines are looking toward future glory rather than rehashing prominent pasts.
Leave that to college football romantics.
Tonight’s epic match-up between top-ranked Notre Dame, winner of 11 consensus national championships, and defending champion Alabama, which claims 14 titles, has generated an interest and a buzz that is nearly unprecedented, even in this era of information overload.
It’s a unique situation of two teams with eerily similar lineages and polarizing power. People love Notre Dame and love to hate Notre Dame. Alabama fans are as loyal as any, but their team has become the bully on college football’s block that others love to root against.
It’s a dream match-up for ESPN, which will telecast the game. Ratings for this game are expected to hit an all-time high for the network.
Notre Dame is trying to fight back to prominence after a 24-year title drought. Alabama is shooting for a third national championship in four years, a dynasty that hasn’t been seen since Nebraska in the 1990s and Notre Dame in the 1940s.
ESPN college football host Reese Davis believes that tonight’s game is quite possibly the most anticipated game of the BCS era, largely because of the history involved.
“The only matchup that comes close to this is Texas-USC (in 2006),” Davis said. “For Notre Dame, the return to prominence, the opportunity to win a championship after all these years when people were asking, ‘Can they be relevant again,’ has created a great deal of anticipation.
“Texas-USC may be the equal, but I don’t think there has been a more highly anticipated game than the one we’ll see (tonight).”
Kickoff is set for approximately 8:30 p.m. EST at Sun Life Stadium.
The engine of this hype also seems to be that these two institutions and their respective fan bases are so different, yet so much alike. It’s not just Alabama vs. Notre Dame. It’s Springsteen vs. Skynyrd. Gump vs. Rudy. Bear vs. Knute. Goliath vs. Goliath.
Notre Dame played its first football game in 1887. Alabama played its first football game in 1892. Notre Dame has an all-time record of 865-299-42. Alabama has an all-time record of 826-321-43. Tonight’s game will be Notre Dame’s 33rd bowl game, but the Irish did not participate in bowls from 1925-69. This will be Alabama’s record 60th bowl game appearance.
It’s also debated which program has the most national championships. For decades several polls awarded national titles. Notre Dame only counts consensus national championships from the major polls. Its sports information department even did historical research dating back to 1900 to show the Irish indeed lead Alabama in titles, 21 to 18. Both teams have won eight AP national titles.
Weather you use Irish math or ‘Bama math, the history of these two programs is hard to ignore because there’s simply so much of it. Still, the “history question” has become a running joke among many of 800-plus sports writers in town for tonight’s game. The players even smirk when the question of tradition is asked at press conferences. Coaches mostly laugh it off.
Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert was asked what he knows about Alabama’s tradition.
“Not much,” Eifert responded matter-of-fact. “I'm just worried about their defense.”
He was then asked if he was aware of Notre Dame’s famed “Four Horsemen” backfield from the 1920s.
“Yeah,” he answered flatly. After all, he walks past a bronze statue of them each time he walks through the atrium of the team’s practice facility and offices back in South Bend.
Alabama wide receiver Kevin Norwood was asked for his thoughts on the six-game rivalry the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide had between 1973 and 1987.
“They’re 5-1 against us,” he said. “That’s all I know.”
Everybody knows that Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o just needs to tackle Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron tonight. He doesn’t have to tackle him and give him a history lesson.
Still, there is something to be said for the history of these two programs. There’s a context in it that takes root and grows as the years turn. Tonight’s game will become part of that history.
Whatever whispers of yesteryear there are surrounding this matchup; Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said it really doesn’t matter to his players. In his eyes, there is no pressure from the past, just the future.
“We're going to play fast, we're going to play aggressive because we don't carry all those perceived burdens,” Kelly said. “They're 18 to 21 year olds, they have no idea what that history means. We do, our fan base certainly does, but what I've tried hard to do is let our kids go play the game and let their actions speak, and not let all of this outside perceived pressure for the entire Notre Dame nation to weigh heavily on them.”
At any rate, it’s finally time to stop talking and enjoy a little history in the making tonight.
Mike Wanbaugh is the managaing editor of The Goshen (Ind.) News. Contact him at mike-wanbaught#goshennews.com.