The end is in sight. As the final seconds ticked away from the Georgia Bulldogs, the race for the crystal ball—122 teams strong, at least in theory, at the start of the fall—had dwindled to two. Notre Dame and Alabama, the ultimate blue-blood slugfest, on the biggest stage with everything at stake.
The strange thing is not the identities of the finalists, but how they got there. In college football, teams are never more than one glorious run away from greatness. The monumental rise and fall of Auburn should attest to this: two years ago, the Tigers, led by the near-supernatural brilliance of Cam Newton, raced from #21 in the preseason polls to claim an improbable national championship. Two years of spectacular collapse following Newton’s departure now has coach Gene Chizik out on the street. It could happen to anyone. But no one expected it to happen to Notre Dame, not this team, not in this day and age. Many arguments were made as to why the Irish could not succeed, from academic standards to the crushing weight of tradition to the bad weather. No matter the incredible turnaround of Stanford, a similarly elite academic school, or the continued dominance of Ohio State, a fellow tenant of the frozen north. Notre Dame was lost in the past, and its glory days were over.
The echoes were wakened unexpectedly and gradually. Much was made in the beginning of the season about the brutal schedule the Irish had in front of them; indeed, hopes were so low that Notre Dame began the season unranked. There was an air of disbelief that grew stronger and stronger over the course of the season—could this actually be happening? There was no way that this Irish team is special, right? As the ranked wins piled up, the voices of disbelief grew louder and louder. Beat Michigan and Michigan State? The Big Ten is weak. Beat Oklahoma on the prairie? Kansas State did it better. The Irish had a defense of stone, a get-by offense, and a lifetime supply of luck. The Irish played it close in game after game, but they simply continued to win by narrow margins. Three points against Purdue. Seven against Michigan, locking Denard Robinson out of the end zone as convincingly as Alabama had done two weeks before. Overtime against Stanford, with a still-controversial finish at the goal line, before the Cardinal went on their late-season run of invincibility. Three points against BYU, then three overtimes (and more goal-line magic) against Pittsburgh, easily this season’s most schizophrenic team in college football. Then finally that magical night in Los Angeles, where the Irish pulled a goal-line stand for the ages, unseating preseason number-1 USC and claiming their own hold on the top spot. It hasn’t been pretty or dominant, but that game convinced me. This is a team that will not take command, but they could beat absolutely anyone.
Alabama is no slouch, of course, and although the Tide have taken something of a step back from their unstoppable-juggernaut form of last season, they are still a powerful force. The Tide are, on paper, a more complete team than the Irish. They are the champions of the mighty SEC, the conference that holds the past six crystal footballs (except for the one that some high school player broke on a recruiting visit to Florida). They are the defending champs, going for a three-out-of-four run and a claim for utter domination. As online columnist Shane Ryan put it, instead of watching the Georgia game, one could just as easily listen to a four-hour loop of the Imperial March from Star Wars. The ending of that game was inevitable; Nick Saban, the Dark Lord himself, knew it was Alabama’s destiny.
So there you have it. On the one hand, ruthless efficiency. On the other, the team that simply finds a way. Good against evil. “Have faith” against “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Notre Dame, of course, is not being given a snowball’s chance in hell against the overwhelming Tide. I get the feeling that the Irish have the Tide precisely where they want them. And if anyone has been paying attention to the hopeless underdogs of college football this past decade (hello, Boise State!), their eyes will be glued to the screen this January 7. I know that mine will be.