ATLANTA — Barrett Jones hobbled into Alabama’s locker room in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, two crutches supporting the 6-foot-5, 302-pound All-America center’s frame.
“You guys don’t mind if I take a seat, do you?” Jones asked the collected media as he sat in front off his locker, his No. 2 Crimson Tide having beat third-ranked Georgia 32-28 for the SEC title and a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
He was drained.
Physically — suffering an undisclosed injury he said wouldn’t keep him from playing for a national title — and emotionally after a game that he would call “probably my favorite win I’ve ever had.”
But Alabama isn’t finished yet. For much of the nation, this was the national title game. The Tide, though, have simply earned the right to play to keep their conference perched atop the college football world.
Six consecutive SEC titles, two of which came courtesy of these Tide. Standing between them and No. 7 is top-ranked Notre Dame.
Dynasty vs. Revival.
In a season that few saw coming, Brian Kelly has taken the Fighting Irish from unranked to playing for a crystal football. After suffering a combined 21 losses in the three seasons before his arrival, Kelly has the Irish on the cusp of becoming the first team to finish the year No. 1 after starting it outside the Top 25 since BYU in 1984.
“I know they’re a really physical team, I feel like we’re kind of similar in that way,” Jones said. “They pride themselves on up front on both sides of the ball. It will be a great matchup … we have a long time to prepare.”
Thirty-six days to be exact, what figures to be an eternity as the hype machine churns for the buildup of a clash between two of the game’s most storied programs.
But it’s not as if Alabama and Notre Dame haven’t shared this stage or these stakes before.
It was 1973 and like so many games before and after, it was dubbed the Game of the Century.
Bear Bryant vs. Ara Parseghian. No. 1 vs. No. 3. Two powers meeting for the first time in the Sugar Bowl at Tulane Stadium. As Bryant said, it was the kind of game “you can sink your teeth into.”
The unbeaten Crimson Tide already had a national championship in hand — their fourth under Bryant — from the UPI poll, which didn’t begin including bowl games until 1974. Sitting atop the AP poll, Alabama was playing for another.
After the sixth and final lead change, his Irish were clinging to a 24-23 lead with 2:12 remaining. The ball on their own 5-yard line and facing third-and-six, Parseghian made the call, “Power-I, Right, Tackle-Trap-Left,” a play-action pass.
Quarterback Tom Clements would hit tight end Robin Weber for a 36-yard gain, allowing the Irish to run out the clock.
It was a defining moment and a defining game for Parseghian, who would cement his first perfect season — and second national championship — by knocking off the top coach in the game in Bryant, who himself already had a handful of titles to his credit.
Thirty-nine years later, another Notre Dame coach in Kelly will try to do the same and deny the nation’s current top coach, Alabama’s Nick Saban, his fourth championship.
Like that day in New Orleans, the Irish will be underdogs in Miami.
Despite being 12-0 and boasting a defense that features a Heisman Trophy contender in linebacker Manti Te’o, and which ranks second in the nation in points allowed (10.3 per game) and sixth in total D, the Irish have been second-guessed, largely because of an offense that’s been shaky at best, scoring 26.7 points (75th) and are 77th in passing.
It would seem an unfavorable matchup with an Alabama defense that’s first in total D and points allowed, second against the rush and third vs. the pass. But sophomore QB Everett Golson has been steadily improving, completing 60.6 percent of his passes for 990 yards and seven TDs over the last four games and as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Georgia’s Aaron Murray proved, this Tide secondary can be picked apart.
The fact remains this is still the SEC’s world until someone can prove otherwise.
The best the conference offers looks pretty formidable after winning an epic title game against Georgia that Saban said was like “a heavyweight boxing match and you have to punch your way right to the 15th round.”
These fighters traded punches and the lead six times, but ultimately Alabama proved too much.
The running game rumbled for 350 yards, with 181 yards and two TDs from game MVP Eddie Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon’s 153 yards and a score. After looking shaky early, AJ McCarron rose to the occasion, hitting Amari Cooper for the game-winning 45-yard touchdown with 3:15 to play.
“We created a great opportunity for ourselves,” Saban said.
Alabama’s Nick Perry stood on the turf minutes after the win holding up an SEC sign as he and Nick Sunseri posed for pictures with the Crimson Tide cheerleaders.
Up on the nearby stage, SEC commissioner Mike Slive mingled with the rest of the Alabama players as they celebrated the win, rounds after rounds of confetti rained down from the Georgia Dome ceiling.
The confetti was blue and gold, Notre Dame’s colors. And like the hype that will now build for the Tide’s Jan. 7 date with the Irish, it was all-consuming.