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Senior College Football Columnist

Think Tide practices are vicious? Just wait for 'war' of BCS title game

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sometimes Alabama's D.J. Fluker and Damion Square don't talk for days at a time. They share a locker room, coaches, a common goal and the same personal space. Actually, that's where the problem begins.

When Alabama's first team units go against each other in practice, it can be one of the epic sights in college sports. That is, if any outsiders were allowed to watch the drills of the defending national champs. We'll just have to take the word of the participants who line up inches from each other, pounding away daily.

"They have," defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said, "good wars."

"We get to the point where we just don't like each other after practice, or the whole week," said Fluker, Bama's massive 335-pound junior offensive right tackle. "We don't talk to each other -- or we talk noise again."

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"I'm almost positive," said Square, a senior defensive end, "I'm not going to see a guy like him on Saturdays."

Doubtful, since their next meeting may be as professionals on Sundays. For now, the pit where they clash is the essence of American sports. It's where scores of dads witness their sons' mettle in the earliest days of youth football. It's what separates soccer players from defensive tackles, shortstops from right guards, at a young age.

It is legal mayhem, different from any sport his side of MMA. It's why elderly men are suing the NFL over long-ago injuries. It's why young men gladly endure them.

It is where Monday's BCS title game will be decided. Call it the Sanctity of the A and B gap -- the region of violence from tackle to tackle where both Notre Dame and Alabama love to run and stop the run.

With the crystal football at stake, both teams will ask early and often: How hard can you hit to make the other guy submit?

Let the good wars begin.

"You haven't seen nasty yet," Fluker said.

"I've been an offensive lineman since I remember in Pop Warner football," said Notre Dame guard Mike Golic Jr. "The basics -- A, B, C gap -- things like that. It's the little things that laid a foundation for everything else."

It may be the easiest championship game to break down of the BCS era. Alabama isn't going to win if it doesn't pound tailbacks Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon. Standing in their way is a Notre Dame defense that has given up two rushing touchdowns all season.

Notre Dame has no chance if can't establish its three-headed tailbacks Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III. At the center of Alabama's 3-4 defense is a 320-pound Australian terror of a nose guard, Jesse Williams.

"Somehow I end up [practicing against] the best player on our defense," Bama All-American center Barrett Jones said.

In addition to banging heads with Williams in his career, Jones has had the "honor" of trying to stop two-time All-American Terrence Cody and 2010 BCS title game MVP Marcell Dareus, both now in the NFL.

Can Monday be any tougher? The Irish front line may contain three future pros -- Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

"I love the matchup we have up front," said Mike Elston, Notre Dame's defensive line coach. "We are, in my opinion, one of the best defensive lines in the country and are going up against one of the best offensive lines in the country."

Maybe the best. That title that has been hung on Alabama's O-line since the beginning of the season. "There's some games that you play and you feel like you have no control over the trenches up front," Square said, "with guys running sideline to sideline. Whenever you've got a team that's coming downhill, and they're trying to play football the way it's supposed to be played ... you feel like you have control over the game."

The A gap is defined as the spaces to the right and left of the center. The B gap is that hole between the guards and tackles. The C gaps are outside the tackles, but let's not get fancy. Control those areas and you control the game.

"There's nothing better when you get to the fourth quarter and things are rolling and you feel like you're grinding on the other team," Golic said. "It's a feeling Alabama knows all too well also."

Bama paid homage to the sanctity of the A and B gap last month. Its postseason mortality was at stake in the third quarter of the SEC title game. Georgia just returned a blocked field goal to go ahead 21-10.

"It was a weird feeling," said Alabama offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. "On the sideline, the confidence was there. There was no panicking. You can tell when someone is in the deep end of the pool. The way they went about it right after that was really good."

Bama responded by scoring on its next possession, eventually rushing for 171 of its SEC championship game-record 350 yards in the final 27 minutes in a 32-18 win.

Keep your eyes fixed, then, on the middle of the field Monday night. It is where most of the action will take place. It's how Alabama got to this place in history. It could be the first team to win back-to-back titles in the BCS era and third to win three championships in four years.

Dareus was the central figure in the 2009 title game, knocking out Texas quarterback Colt McCoy on the third snap. Last year's 21-0 win over LSU in the rematch was the fourth of eight shutouts by Alabama since '09.

Monday may not be pretty. In fact, it may be boring. Combined, the teams run 61 percent of the time. The national average is 54 percent. If Lacy and Yeldon were one person, they'd lead the country in rushing, narrowly, over Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey.

Both runners share each other's traits. Lacy -- more of an inside runner -- can turn the corner. Yeldon is considered the speed back but has no problem running between those tackles. Forget Thunder and Lightning. This is pestilence on every carry.

Defensively, both teams are in the top four in red zone D. Alabama's defense is first in yards per rush. Notre Dame is 10th.

"To me, the old cliché is this game will be won in the trenches," Elston said. "That is exactly this game."

Alabama's Jones might as well be your tour guide of this game. Offensive linemen are considered the smartest players on the field. Centers are considered the smartest of the O-line. Alabama's center has yet to give up a sack this season. According to Bama, he missed all of six assignments in 731 snaps.

Center is the third position of his career. A starter at right guard and left tackle for his first three seasons, Jones shifted to center this season where he won the Rimington Trophy (top center). "The most physically difficult, it's left tackle," Jones said. "Left tackle is the primary line position. It's just harder. Blocking those edge rushers is very difficult. Playing center, your blocks are important every time. It's like a big math problem where you constantly have to be calculating what the defense is doing and make adjustments."

But inside the minds of these giants they have to want to hit. They're the ones who turned all those little kids into shortstops and midfielders.

"You think I'm a meathead or something? I'm just there to beat people up?" said Jones, three weeks removed from getting his master's in accountancy. "I'm in it for a lot of reasons. I love football. I love the challenge it presents daily. I love how you're facing new situations to figure out."

Fluker loves the pancakes, as in blocks, defined as when a lineman puts a defender on his back.

"I'm throwing syrup on top of those pancakes," he said, "with a little butter."

Clear the table because at least one epic battle will be concluded as of Monday. Season over, career over, Square can go back to talking to Fluker on a regular basis instead of hitting him on a daily basis.

"I just cringe at the thought of him having to hammer big Fluker every play," Smart said.

Yes, it will be a good war.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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