Just think, three weeks ago, we were looking at an Oregon-Kansas State dud for the BCS National Championship Game.
Instead, we have Alabama and Notre Dame meeting Jan. 7 in Miami for the national title, and not only will this game feature the two best teams of 2012, it will draw heavily upon history, too.
The cover of Alabama’s press guide for the 1973 Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame.
The two teams are tied together closely, even though they’ve played each other only six times. They first played in 1973, which is long enough ago not only were none of the current players born, celebrated Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart wasn’t, either. He wasn’t born until 1975. Alabama coach Nick Saban was a first-year graduate assistant at Kent State when the Crimson Tide and the Irish faced off for the first time.
They haven’t played each other since 1987, and, again, that’s before any current player on either roster was born.
While it’s unfair to place the burden of history upon players and coaches who had no part in making it, it’s unavoidable in this case, especially on the Alabama side.
We’ll try to explain to you why your father (or grandfather or great-grandfather) has such a healthy dislike for Notre Dame, even though its program hasn’t won a national title since 1988 and until this year wasn’t relevant nationally since the 1990s.
No team has shaped Alabama’s national championship numbers like the Irish. If you think the Tide shouldn’t claim 14 national titles, imagine what they would be if Alabama had better luck against Notre Dame, on and off the field.
In 1966, two-time defending national champion Alabama went unbeaten and untied but finished third in the polls as Notre Dame took the crown. The Irish had tied No. 2 Michigan State 10-10, passing up a chance at the end to go for the win, instead choosing to down the ball and run out the clock.
They finally met Dec. 31, 1973, in the final Sugar Bowl not played in the Louisiana Superdome. Playing at old Tulane Stadium, Notre Dame won 24-23, taking The Associated Press national title. The coaches poll concluded its voting at the end of the regular season and already had named Alabama its champion.
It should make any list of the greatest college football games ever played, and the nation paid attention that night.
According to Sugar Bowl records, that game drew a Nielsen TV rating of 25.3, and from what research I can find, the only college football game since then to come close was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl in which Penn State beat Miami 14-10, drawing a 24.9. The highest rated game in the BCS era, which started in 1998, is Texas’ 41-38 win over Southern California for the 2005 national title. That one got a 21.7.
The following season, then-unbeaten Alabama and Notre Dame played again in the Orange Bowl, and the Irish won again. This time it was 13-11, ruining another perfect Tide season.
Back then, if you asked an Alabama fan who he hated more, Auburn or Notre Dame, he would’ve needed time to think about it.
It’s possible those two games cost Alabama two more national titles. In the space of four seasons, 1971-74, Bear Bryant‘s teams had fallen to Nebraska, Texas and Notre Dame in bowl games, costing the Crimson Tide national respect.
Whether we like it or not, poll voters consider recent history to some degree, which hurt the Crimson Tide significantly for the rest of the 1970s. What if Alabama could’ve ridden a wave of respect received from beating Notre Dame?
In 1975, Alabama lost only once — its opener to Missouri. But in the season’s final three polls, both Oklahoma and Arizona State leaped over the Crimson Tide. The once-beaten Sooners won the national title, ASU finished second and Alabama third.
In 1977, No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas lost their bowl games, while No. 3 Alabama pounded Ohio State 35-6 in the Sugar Bowl. And the Tide went to No. 1, right? Nope.
Notre Dame jumped from fifth to first after beating Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl. Again, Tide fans did a slow burn.
Also, in 1980, Alabama lost a regular-season game to Notre Dame 7-0, giving the Crimson Tide its second loss of the year and eliminating Bryant’s team from the national title chase.
Georgia finished No. 1 that year with the great Herschel Walker. What if Georgia and Alabama had played that season in the Sugar Bowl? It wasn’t likely the bowl would have paired them, but all these years later, it’s fun to wonder what might’ve happened.
Instead, Georgia beat Notre Dame 17-10 to clinch the title.
Alabama and the Irish played a two-game regular-season series in 1986 in Birmingham and 1987 in South Bend, Ind. The Crimson Tide won the first game 28-10 but lost the second 37-6.
The Associated Press, which has sponsored a college football poll since 1936, has named Alabama its national champion eight times. It has named Notre Dame eight times, too. Those two schools are tied for first in AP crowns. (Other organizations have awarded both schools national titles, too.)
Now, their histories are linked again. This time there’s one significant difference, and it’s one nobody in 1973 probably foresaw.
These days, it’s the Southeastern Conference that is the darling of poll voters and the television analysts, while Notre Dame struggled for respect all year.
It wasn’t always like this, and that’s another reason your father, grandfather and great-grandfather dislike the Irish — it always seemed like the polls and TV guys loved them and had little more than indifference toward Southern teams like Alabama.
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