I'll admit I never thought Notre Dame would be here -- in Miami for the BCS title game. Well, certainly not this year.
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Going into this season, the Irish had, on paper, what looked like the roughest schedule in the country. They also had an unstable QB situation and major issues in the secondary. I figured if they went 8-4, it'd seem like a good third year for coach Brian Kelly. Nine wins would've been really good, and 10 wins would make a truly great season for a program that hadn't finished in the Top 25 since 2006.
Even though early on there were plenty of signs this ND squad might actually be a legit top team (hammering No. 10 Michigan State on the road in mid-September followed by a win over Michigan the next week), I, like pretty much every non-ND diehard college football observer in the country, was still very skeptical. The Fighting Irish, after all, were beating good programs that appeared to all be having down seasons -- Michigan State, Michigan and Miami. And then there was the controversial win over Stanford, which was followed by a dismal effort against a mediocre Pitt team that required three overtimes and the Panthers missing a chip-shot field goal.
I always figured eventually the Fighting Irish and their young secondary would get exposed at Oklahoma or at USC, but neither of those things happened. So now, after seeing ND up close, I have to admit I am a believer.
I am convinced Notre Dame, the program that has been fueled by more false hope than any other outside of Florida State in the past two decades, is going to be the team that ends the SEC's BCS title run. Still sounds kinda crazy when I reread this. (Yeah, Brian Kelly is that good a coach.)
The Fighting Irish D, as I have said numerous times over the past two months or so, is led by a huge -- and surprisingly nimble -- front seven that looks every bit as ferocious as the best the SEC has. Notre Dame also has a dynamic trio of versatile running backs; an emerging young QB with the wheels to extend plays and the moxie to handle big moments to go along with a great difference-maker at tight end in Tyler Eifert. The pieces are in place. Better still, after all of the tight moments and goal-line stands, I now believe this bunch has been emboldened such that they cannot lose. Too many things have gone their way for this team to come into Monday absolutely convinced this is their year.
It's not that Alabama isn't a loaded team. The Crimson Tide is in the midst of one of the greatest runs in recent college football history and is on the brink of making it three titles in four seasons. They have the best coach in college football in Nick Saban and a proven big-game QB (AJ McCarron), plus a defense that statistically is even rougher than ND's. The Crimson Tide certainly have the kind of power in their front seven to take advantage of a very suspect interior of the ND offensive line. And Bama has the BCS title game experience edge.
At media day on Saturday, I started to have some second thoughts about picking ND to win this game after having a long chat with a few players who were among the handful of the Fighting Irish fifth-year seniors who committed to Notre Dame in 2007, the darkest season in its storied history. ND went 3-9 that year under Charlie Weis, but the nucleus of this team still believed ND was right for them.
The word that came up a few times Saturday was "surreal" -- it was surreal to them that the Fighting Irish were having this season and were so close to a BCS title after where the program was back then. The players also seemed to know better than to get caught in being nostalgic at this point. There is too much work left to be done, but fending off getting lost in the magnitude of all this can be easier said than done.
My hunch is that Brian Kelly and his staff won't allow that and a veteran team will be focused and find a way, just like it has for the past three months. On paper, it'd be a big upset, but stuff like that occasionally does happen in BCS title games. The Fighting Irish were a 10-point underdog a few days ago (the line has dipped to 9.5 as I write this) and it's hardly unprecedented that a huge underdog shocks the football world. This is the third BCS title game ever to have a spread in the double-digit range, according to R.J. Bell. The first two double-digit favorites (FSU in 2001 and Miami in 2003) both lost the game outright.
My pick: Notre Dame 17, Alabama 16.