It's 36 days to kickoff in Miami. Here's what everyone will be talking about between now and then.
Alabama is aiming for the first repeat in BCS history. (US Presswire)
• Defense Wins Championships. For the second year in a row, the championship game is a collision of the two best defenses in the nation in terms of points allowed, featuring two units that have combined to hold opponents without an offensive touchdown in 10 different games. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally in both rushing and total defense with four shutouts. On the other side, in six games against teams that were ranked at any point this season, Notre Dame held all six to 14 points or fewer. At one point in the first half of the season, the Fighting Irish held opposing offenses out of the end zone entirely in 17 consecutive quarters.
But don't just go by the box scores: Between Alabama's Dee Milliner, C.J. Mosley and Jesse Williams and Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt and Manti Te'o, there will be at least two future first-round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball on any given snap.
• Freshman Quarterbacks Do Not. (Do They?) 2012 was considered a rebuilding year at Notre Dame in part due to a bear of a schedule, one that featured five opponents (Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and USC) that landed in the preseason polls after winning at least 10 games in 2011. But there was also the matter of the gaping void under center, where the Irish were turning to a redshirt freshman, Everett Golson, with a resumé consisting entirely of a solid afternoon in the spring game. Now, Golson is about to become the first freshman quarterback to lead a team into a BCS title game since Virginia Tech's Michael Vick in the 2000 Sugar Bowl, and will be seeking to become the first freshman starter to claim a national title since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in the 1986 Orange Bowl -- nearly seven years to the day before Golson was born.
Since Vick, 22 of the 24 starting quarterbacks in the title game have been juniors or seniors, the only two exceptions being Oregon's Darron Thomas in 2010, and Alabama's current quarterback, AJ McCarron, in last season's game, both of whom were in their third year in their respective programs as redshirt sophomores. Although he has often played like a veteran -- most notably in Notre Dame's most impressive win, a 30-13 upset at Oklahoma in late October -- by any championship standard Golson could not be greener.
• Rule of Three. Brian Kelly is in his third season as Notre Dame's head coach, which every Irish fan knows is the magic number. The last four coaches who have brought national championships backs to South Bend -- Frank Leahy (1943), Ara Parseghian (1966), Dan Devine (1977) and Lou Holtz (1988) -- all did so for the first time, or only time, in their third year at the helm. Of that group, only Holtz did it with a team that began the season ranked outside of the top 10 (the Irish began the 1988 season ranked 13th), and only Holtz did it with a team that ran the table without a loss or tie. Kelly is already the first coach in the BCS era to lead a team that began the season outside of the polls to the championship game; if the Irish win in Miami, he'll be the first to take an initially unranked team to a national crown since BYU won the Associated Press vote under LaVell Edwards in 1984.
• Our Long Inter-Regional Nightmare. The only streak that matters to Notre Dame is 24: That's the number of years since the Irish's last national championship in 1988, the longest title drought in school history. For the rest of the country, though, the number is six: The SEC's reign over the championship game stands at six years and counting since Florida's ambush of heavily-favored Ohio State in the 2007 edition, and it has no intention of letting the rest of the country forget it until someone else seizes the throne. Oregon came close two years ago, taking Auburn down to the final snap in the 2011 game, and Florida needed a fourth quarter rally to pull away from Oklahoma in 2009.
But in the 14-year history of the BCS, the only team to vanquish an SEC contender with the title on the line is another SEC contender. Alabama throttled LSU in last year's much-lamented SEC-on-SEC rematch. Given the two defenses involved, this year's game may look a lot like that one, only with a lot more people watching.
• Heavy is Headset That Wears the Crown. Alabama is not the first team in the BCS era to make a return trip to the championship game a year after winning it -- Florida State in 2000, Miami in 2002 and USC in 2005 all took a swing at repeats after taking the crown in 1999, 2001 and 2004 -- but a victory would make the Tide the first to actually make it two in a row. The precedent should serve as fair warning against hubris: Like Alabama this year, the Seminoles, Hurricanes and Trojans were all relatively heavy favorites to win the second time around, and all succumbed to upsets at the hands of undefeated but much less heralded outfits from Oklahoma, Ohio State and Texas.
Not that this edition of the Crimson Tide needs any additional reminders of its mortality after a home loss to Texas A&M and come-from-behind, skin-of-the-teeth escapes against LSU and Georgia in the last month alone. But if there's anyone in the sport right now who grasps the burden of playing with expectations, it's Nick Saban.