SOUTH BEND, Ind. – 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 the underdog.
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 Young.
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 in game?
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 consecutive BCS championships.
It’s impossible to quantify what, if any, effect being the underdog actually has 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 scoreboard.”