Alabama football: Back home in the CFP, the Tide get rewarded with soft Fighting Irish
Congratulations, Notre Dame. Great season. Went 10-1 and lost to the defending national runners-up in the ACC title game. Earned your way back to the College Football Championship for the 2nd time in 3 seasons.
Way to go.
You get Alabama.
Sunday’s unveiling of the final College Football Playoff rankings provided precisely none of the drama that it could have, with the committee of 13 athletic directors, former players and media members declining to reward Texas A&M or Cincinnati in favor of going the safe route.
Safe, that is, unless you’re a practitioner of intercollegiate amateur tackle football in South Bend, Indiana.
Manti Te’o’s imaginary deceased girlfriend rolled over in her imaginary grave all over again when ESPN’s Rece Davis intoned Notre Dame’s No. 4 slot. The Fighting Irish were theoretically on the doorstep of being No. 1 heading into Championship Weekend — provided they beat Clemson in the ACC title game and Florida upset the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game.
Neither of those “ifs” happened, and now Notre Dame is in (“Yay!”) and gets the consensus No. 1 team in the country (“Ugh!”)
And the kicker, because this is 2020 and nothing is normal in 2020: Alabama will take on Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl … played in Texas. The CFP wisely moved the Rose Bowl from Pasadena on Saturday night due to COVID-19 restrictions in California. That means instead of the Tide and Irish schlepping across the country to play in an empty shell of a stadium, they’ll tee it up in JerryWorld in Arlington on New Year’s Day in front of approximately 15,000 fans.
“I love the Rose Bowl,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who all but said his team wouldn’t play in a postseason game unless families were able to attend, to the ESPN crew.
“We are so excited, and everyone involved knows how important that decision was to move the game. I know it was difficult. There is a lot of things that go into it. We are just grateful that everyone involved was able to come to the decision to get families to the game.”
This is the Tide’s 6th time qualifying for the College Football Playoff in 7 seasons. Alabama has been No. 1 in the CFP every even-numbered season but has never won the title from that position. Notre Dame qualified for the 2018 CFP as the No. 3 seed after going 12-0 in the season and promptly got spanked by Clemson 30-3 … at JerryWorld in Arlington.
Listen, we aren’t going to argue with Notre Dame’s relative bona fides. Other than absorbing a 24-point beating by Heisman Trophy hopeful Trevor Lawrence and Clemson in the ACC Championship Game, the Fighting Irish looked every bit one of the top 4 teams in America in 2020. We will let the pundits argue that Texas A&M, which dropped a 28-point decision to Alabama during the regular season, should’ve been in over Notre Dame. It is a worthy debate, and one Alabama was a beneficiary of when the 11-1 Tide advanced to the 2017 CFP despite not playing in the SEC title game — eventually winning it all when a certain sweet Hawaiian prince hit a true freshman receiver for an overtime TD on 2nd-and-26.
Perhaps the CFP frowned on a rematch between Alabama and Texas A&M, both from the “hey, they lost by 28 to that team already!” or “we can’t let the Aggies play a semifinal virtually down the street from College Station!” perspectives. Or maybe the CFP committee just didn’t trust a Jimbo Fisher-coached team after having to lock down all the crab claws the last time Fisher took a team to the Playoff. Who knows.
There is one thing we do know: Kelly and the Irish will now spend a goodly amount of the next 12 days discussing the last time they saw Alabama — in the 2012 BCS national title game, when the Crimson Tide absolutely embarrassed Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. The score that night was 42-14, and Notre Dame didn’t put up as much fight as Alabama center Barrett Jones did with teammate AJ McCarron late in the 4th quarter.
“We understand that if we don’t play to our standard, we can be beaten down pretty bad,” Kelly said Sunday. “We understand from the mental perspective. We are much better prepared than we were in 2012, as far as physicality. And we can move the ball better than then. We have been humbled about the way we play from Saturday, but we feel good about it.”
And because, hey, Kelly brought it up, he talked further about what Notre Dame learned from that Orange Bowl beatdown.
“The physicality has to show itself on the offensive and defensive lines, because their offensive line in 2012 just dominated one of the top defenses in the country. We got manhandled,” Kelly said. “What was clear, and you didn’t even have to know anything about football, was the disparity in the offensive and defensive lines. Building that up was a priority for us, and we saw it in 2017 and 2018. That’s what we took from that journey in 2012.”
Interestingly, our friends in the desert installed Alabama as anywhere between a 17.5-point to 20.5-point Rose Bowl favorite — the largest spread in CFP history. Also of note, Kelly said that he will keep the Fighting Irish on campus throughout the 12-day preparation period leading up to the Rose Bowl.
Alabama coach Nick Saban? No Grinch with this decision.
“This is a lot like having a bye week,” Saban said. “That isn’t an abnormal routine for the players to understand. At least we can give them 3 days during Christmas to go home … We let our players go home during the bye week and trusted them to stay safe and healthy. I don’t have the heart to tell the players they can’t go home for Christmas. So we will give them 3 days off for Christmas, practice a day or 2 and then go out there.”
When they return? More business as usual.