The rankings say Notre Dame is No. 1 going into the BCS
championship against Alabama. Plenty of folks aren’t buying it,
starting with the oddsmakers who currently have the Crimson Tide as
about a touchdown favorite for the Jan. 7 meeting in Miami between
two of college football’s proudest programs.
The Fighting Irish aren’t sweating the point spread. In fact,
it’s pretty much business as usual for Notre Dame, which has a
chance to become the first team since 1984 to start the season
unranked and end it as national champions.
”Everybody thought everybody was better than us,” defensive
tackle Louis Nix III said Monday. ”Oklahoma was better than us.
USC was better than us.
”We get it. We know how everyone thinks. We’re just Notre Dame.
Overrated Notre Dame. No one gives us credit for anything. Just the
luck of the Irish, I guess.”
History suggests that being the underdog in the BCS title game
hasn’t been a bad thing. Of the 14 BCS championship games played
since the system was implemented in 1998, seven have been won by
Alabama was a slight underdog last year after losing to LSU in
the regular season, and then shut out the Tigers with the national
title on the line.
In the 2005 championship game between Texas and Southern
California, Vince Young and the Longhorns felt as if they were
being talked about as nothing more than a speed bump on the road to
USC’s coronation as one of the greatest teams in college football
history. Plus, Young was still seething over coming in second to
USC’s Reggie Bush in the Heisman Trophy voting.
The result: Texas 41, USC 38, and a performance for the ages by
The following season, Ohio State reached the national
championship game with a perfect record, No. 1 ranking and a
Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Troy Smith. Florida was the
Buckeyes opponent and the question was: Did the Gators even belong
Urban Meyer, the Gators’ coach, made sure his players got that
message. Even if it meant stretching the truth a bit. After a month
of being told that nobody thought they had a chance to beat Ohio
State, the Gators routed the Buckeyes 41-14 to start the
Southeastern Conference’s run of six straight BCS
It’s impossible to quantify what, if any, effect being the
underdog has actually had on any of those ”upsets.” Any team that
gets to a championship game must be good in the first place.
Whether Notre Dame can or will use the slights – real or
perceived – as motivation remains to be seen.
”I’ve used the technique before during my time as a head
coach,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said about playing the
underdog card. ”I don’t know that that is pertinent because it’s a
one-game deal. It’s all or nothing.
”Both teams have different dynamics to deal with because of the
long layoff. Preparation is more important than any kind of fire
and brimstone speech that I can bring to them.”
Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said the coaches don’t even
need to bring it up. The Fighting Irish have played all season like
a team with something to prove.
”I think it’s a little bit part of our kids’ DNA now,” he
said. ”We don’t have to use it as much as maybe early in the year
when we went on the road to Michigan State and they were ranked
eighth and nobody was thinking we were very good. I think we’ve
kind of just built it into who we are. Everybody likes telling us
what we’re not good at – which is fine by us. One of our strengths
is knowing what we’re not very good at. We try to play to our
strengths and play away from our weaknesses.”
It’s a style that has led to more than a few close calls on the
way to Miami.
Notre Dame beat Purdue and BYU by three points each. The Irish
needed three overtimes to beat Pittsburgh by a field goal and went
to overtime against Stanford, too. In both the Pitt and Stanford
games, Notre Dame caught a few breaks. A missed field goal here, a
questionable call by the officials there.
Meanwhile, except for its upset loss to Texas A&M, Alabama
has rarely been challenged on its way to a third BCS title game
appearance in the past four seasons.
The Tide is outscoring its opponents by an average of 28 points
per game. Notre Dame’s average margin of victory is 16 points per
game, as the Irish have leaned on Heisman Trophy finalists Manti
Te’o and a stellar defense while they developed first-year starting
quarterback Everett Golson.
”I understand why people say Alabama’s going to win,” said
Nix, the 325-pound anchor of Notre Dame’s defensive front. ”Great
offensive line. Good quarterback. Great guys on the edge. They’ve
been in the national championship twice in the last three years. I
would probably pick Alabama, too.
”At the end of the day it’s all about what’s on the
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap