The confetti had been shot from those little cannons in the roof of the Georgia Dome, and it had fluttered earthward like pastel snow into small piles on the plastic grass of the football field. The victory ceremony had concluded, and most of the Alabama players had escaped to their locker room with their Southeastern Conference championship hats, their trophy and the everlasting relief that comes from watching an opponent, in this case Georgia, fall five yards short of victory as the final seconds leak into the night. Junior quarterback AJ McCarron had been among the last to leave the field. First a picture with 'Bama cheerleaders, then others with two different groups of fans. Finally a quick handshake from SEC legend and famous NFL father Archie Manning before sprinting to the tunnel in a distant corner.
Manning, who worked the game for CBS, paused on the field as McCarron exited and then put simple words to a concept that weighed heavily on the evening: the anticipation of a national championship game that embraces the essence of a sport. "Alabama and Notre Dame," said Manning. "That's college football right there."
If ever there was a bowl game made in heaven.... It is Alabama vs. Notre Dame.... It is a game too broad to be contained in a mere 60 minutes.... Almost too important just to play. Such a game must be waged. It is a contest of teams loaded with football tradition ... and both coached by men so famous they are as identifiable by their first names (Ara, Bear) as by their last (Parseghian, Bryant).
—JOHN UNDERWOOD, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Dec. 24, 1973
Alabama and Notre Dame will meet again in Miami on Jan. 7, but much has changed since Underwood wrote those words almost four decades ago, shortly before the two schools played each other for the first time, in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship. College football has become a cold, sprawling business, surrendering a lot—though not all—of its charm to the pursuit of fiscal survival. Longtime affiliations and rivalries have been cast aside in conference realignment run amok. The bowl system that once defined New Year's Day has been revamped endlessly, resulting in the hated and now lame-duck BCS, which will endure for just one more season before giving way to a playoff system in 2014. A litany of scandals has unfolded, the most heartbreaking of which tore Penn State asunder just a year ago. Bryant retired after the 1982 season and died four weeks later, a mythic figure forever in houndstooth. Parseghian retired in '75 and lives a quiet life split between South Bend and Marco Island, Fla.
Yet much remains the same. College football is still a vibrant and uniquely American pastime, a collection of subcultures that are as varied as the places in which they thrive (from Baton Rouge to Ann Arbor, from Los Angeles to Gainesville) yet share the power of an autumn Saturday to tie people together across generations, dressed in their colors, waving their flags, singing their songs and never growing old. These are not games; they are a succession of family reunions. And if there is sometimes (or all the time) a nettlesome disconnect between the core academic mission of the universities and the goals of their football teams, that is for most a very small price to pay for the joy of the game's embrace.
There is no more powerful celebration of these qualities than a national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. Alabama is the archetype of the regional partisan force, the most potent among programs whose true power is best understood by the hardcore fans who live within a few hours' drive of the stadiums and whose lives revolve around the rises and falls of their teams. ("Roll, Tide," said the man on the Atlanta hotel elevator last Saturday night, emotionlessly, a way of saying good night to a stranger as he walked into the hallway. "Roll, Tide," said the stranger in just the same voice.) Notre Dame, meanwhile, built its name long ago on the uncommon breadth of its national appeal. The blue-collar immigrant subway alumni on whom the Fighting Irish myth was constructed in the 1930s and '40s are long gone, but subsequent generations have sustained its appeal, helped by the sport's only exclusive network television contract.
If Notre Dame's popularity is constructed partly on its attachment to Catholicism (and it surely is), Alabama football is itself a secular religion, with a similar pull. Much time will be spent before Jan. 7 explaining the differences between the two teams' fans, but in truth they would recognize much of themselves in each other. Between them, Notre Dame and Alabama claim 25 national championships and three coaches on the very, very short list of the most famous in college football history (Bryant on one side; Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy on the other). The two schools are as synonymous with college football as the Bears and the Packers are with the NFL and the Yankees and the Dodgers with baseball. Fans in certain parts of the country will argue that the 2005 national title game between USC and Texas carried similar historic weight, but that is simply not true. This season's championship game will be most attractive one since the perceived Good vs. Evil showdown of Penn State and Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl.
The matchup was sealed dramatically with Alabama's 32--28 victory over Georgia in Saturday's SEC title game, which kept the Crimson Tide at No. 2 in the BCS standings while 12--0 Notre Dame, the last remaining major unbeaten team (except Ohio State, which is banned from the postseason), waited at home to learn the identity of its opponent. Alabama took its final lead of the game on a 45-yard touchdown pass from McCarron to freshman wideout Amari Cooper with 3:15 to play and then survived a desperate Georgia drive that ended when the Bulldogs completed a pass inbounds at the Alabama five with six seconds to play and no timeouts left.
Both teams have climbed back to this moment. Notre Dame last won the national title in 1988, under Lou Holtz. The Fighting Irish are on their fourth head coach since '97—Brian Kelly, finishing his third year in South Bend—and before this season had been the subject of frequent ruminations on their future viability as championship contenders.
Like Notre Dame, Alabama has suffered, though not as enduringly. Bryant's last title was in 1979, and 13 years later Gene Stallings coached the Tide to a national championship with a victory over the dying Miami dynasty in the Sugar Bowl. But it would be 17 more years and four more coaches before Nick Saban brought the title back to Tuscaloosa, with another last season. That 17-year interregnum included an eight-loss season under Mike DuBose, a nine-loss season under Mike Shula and a total of 21 victories vacated from 2005 to '07 because of sanctions resulting from NCAA violations.
The Tide was ranked No. 1 in the nation this season before losing at home last month to Texas A&M and Heisman candidate Johnny Manziel (page 106), a defeat that seemed to end any hope of a third national title in four years. Yet Alabama went home and regrouped. As senior left guard Chance Warmack recalled after the SEC title game, "Our leadership group got together before practice Monday that week. We sat in the team-meeting room and said, Is this who we are? We talked to the whole team Thursday."
On Nov. 17, the Tide easily beat overmatched Western Carolina 49--0. That night a group of older players gathered in senior center Barrett Jones's apartment to watch two of the three teams ranked ahead of Alabama—Kansas State and Oregon—play their games. Notre Dame had already won that afternoon. "It was a very particular group of people," says Jones. "No girls. No fans. Those weren't the type of games you wanted to be watching and having people ask you what a first down is."
Kansas State was beaten by Baylor and Oregon by Stanford, moving Notre Dame to No. 1 and Alabama to No. 2. The Tide was back in the hunt. Jones went into the street outside his apartment to share the moment with 'Bama fans.
On Saturday night there was one more mountain to summit. When Georgia's Alec Ogletree took a blocked field goal 55 yards for a touchdown, the Bulldogs led 21--10 with 6:31 to play in the third quarter. Alabama responded with a four-play, 62-yard smashmouth drive, all but one snap on the ground, and made a two-point conversion to pull within three points. Another run-heavy drive gave Alabama the lead on the first play of the fourth quarter. "That's your favorite thing as an offensive lineman, when you know every play is a run, and [the defense] knows every play is a run, and they still can't stop you," said Jones. Georgia regained the lead with just under 13 minutes to play, but McCarron's play-action bomb to Cooper put the game back in Alabama's hands.
In the aftermath Alabama players were left to assess the epic meaning of an upcoming game against a legendary opponent whose legends are unknown to them. "I guess they had some good games in the '80s, right?" said Warmack. "I just know I watched them on TV, and the guy I saw was number 5, the linebacker." That would be Manti Te'o, Notre Dame's Heisman Trophy candidate.
The teams have played just six times, the first in that '73 Sugar Bowl, the second a year later in an Orange Bowl rematch won by the Irish 13--11 and the last on Nov. 14, 1987, when Notre Dame beat Alabama 37--6 in South Bend during Holtz's second season with the Irish. Overall, Notre Dame has won five of the meetings.
None of the later matchups were as memorable as the first. Bryant was running the wishbone offense that prolonged his career. Parseghian was running the wing T. Both teams were unbeaten, and the game, at Tulane Stadium, was moved to New Year's Eve, 1973. Notre Dame won 24--23, preserving the victory when quarterback Tom Clements completed a 35-yard pass to sophomore reserve tight end Robin Weber on third-and-eight from the Irish's three-yard line late in the game. It was a daring call that helped erase some of the stigma unfairly attached to Parseghian for sitting on a 10--10 tie with Michigan State seven years earlier.
It is instructive to scour online video from that Sugar Bowl. It is a game of its era: The uniforms are baggy and the lighting dim. The field is first-generation artificial turf, which looks like a pale green rug. But Notre Dame's helmets are a glowing gold and 'Bama's jerseys a deep crimson, as they are today. College football stands on the pillars of its history. Its lifeblood pumps through an artery that stretches back decades, providing comfort through procedural changes. ABC announcer Chris Schenkel intones at a critical juncture, "This is the dream match, the most important game of the year." His partner, Howard Cosell, adds, "At Notre Dame, football is a religion; at Alabama, it's a way of life."
Thirty-nine years later, it is ever thus.
"Alabama and Notre Dame," mused Archie Manning. "That's college football right there."
For all their history, both of these storied programs had to climb back to this moment.
Tide players now face a legendary opponent whose legends are unknown to them.
Read Zac Ellis's final Heisman Watch and see whom readers chose for the award in our People's Heisman poll, at SI.com/mag
Photograph by BILL FRAKES
TALL ORDER To win its 12th national championship, Notre Dame will have to stop Eddie Lacy (42) and a bruising 'Bama rushing attack that piled up 350 yards against Georgia.
POUYA DIANAT (COOPER)
CHAMPIONSHIP FEELING A week after Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson (below)exulted, Cooper (far left) scored the TD that had Big Al and friends planning for Miami.
POUYA DIANAT (BIG AL)
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK (JACKSON)
[See caption above]