History will remember this game
Gene Wojciechowski [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
January 8, 2013
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MIAMI -- How can someone so smart say something so naive?

Alabama center Barrett Jones, a consensus All-American, winner of the so-called Academic Heisman and holder of undergrad and master's degrees in accounting, actually said this a few days ago: "When I'm old, people won't remember who I am."

Uh, Barrett, if Bama beats Notre Dame on Monday evening in the Discover BCS National Championship, people are going to remember you when you're young, middle-aged, old and, well, dead. That's what happens when you win not one, not two, but three national titles in four years.

"Maybe if I lived in Birmingham, some people might [remember me]," said Jones, a fifth-year senior.

The Crimson Tide are one victory from unquestioned dynasty status. In fact, you can argue that Bama is already a football dynasty.

Jones' class has won 60 games, two SEC championships and two BCS championships. Maybe that's why ring making and sculpting are the two biggest growth industries in Tuscaloosa.

Bama coach Nick Saban has his own statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. And he and his players have national championship rings from the 2009 and 2011 Tide seasons. Jewelers have their finger sizes on file.

"Success," Saban said, "is not something that's a continuum."

That's vintage Nick-speak. Sometimes he launches into these stream-of-consciousness lecture series that swerve dangerously close to what you might hear at a monthly sales meeting. But eventually he gets to the point.

"I'm kind of excited about the opportunity that our team has," he said.

Or, as Bama linebacker C.J. Mosley put it: "We're down here for a mission."

And the mission is history. And legacies. And dynasties.

No program since the BCS began in 1998 has won three national titles. If the Tide were to beat Notre Dame, they would slip past the velvet rope and get BCS bottle service for life.

An Alabama victory, as my colleague Ivan Maisel has noted, would put Saban's program in the same dynasty team photo with Nebraska, Miami, Oklahoma, USC, Minnesota, Alabama and Notre Dame rosters of the past. And if you think that doesn't matter to someone such as Saban, you're history tone-deaf.

"There's no question he's driven to be the best coach in the game," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.

The Tide are a 9.5-point favorite, which is Vegas' way of telling Notre Dame there's always the 2013 season. But the more you talked to the Fighting Irish players in the days leading up to this game, the more you could see them almost biting through their tongues.

Notre Dame has spent the entire run-up to the BCS listening to people rave about Alabama. Saban this, Saban that. Bama's offensive line this, Bama's offensive line that. You would have thought the Tide had already won the game.

"We know they're good," Irish offensive tackle Zack Martin said. "We're pretty good, too."

Notre Dame is good enough to be 12-0 and ranked No. 1. It's good enough that, if it wins, the Irish won't consider it an upset.

They are led by senior linebacker Manti Te'o, who came from Hawaii to South Bend against his better judgment. He will leave four years later as perhaps the most beloved and respected player in Notre Dame history.

"A kid in a man's body," said Irish coach Brian Kelly of Te'o's off-field personality.

But on the field? "He's a werewolf," Kelly said. "He's ferocious."

Yet the werewolf and Bama's Jones traveled the same postseason awards circuit together. After one flight, Te'o helped Jones, who was in a protective boot and on crutches, with his luggage.

"Manti Te'o got my bag," said Jones, whose injured foot is much better. "Nice."

Notre Dame respects Alabama, but doesn't fear it. And Bama feels the same way.

"We know if we don't play a good game, Notre Dame will beat us, badly," Jones said.

These are the two best teams in the country. Undefeated Ohio State might say otherwise, but the Buckeyes won't say it very loudly. And, yes, three points is all that separates Oregon from perfection, but that's how it goes. Next time, don't lose to Stanford at home in OT.

This is a game that bridges generation gaps. Te'o wasn't born the last time Notre Dame won a national title in 1988. But the Irish and subway alums remember.

"They're 18- to 21-year-olds," said Kelly of his players. "They have no idea what that history means. We do. Our fan base certainly does. But what I've tried hard to do is let our kids go play the game and let their actions speak and not let all of this outside perceived pressure of the entire Notre Dame nation to weigh heavily on them."

Too late. The Irish might not be football historians, but they do know what's at stake. A 12-0 regular season was a nice start, especially after being unranked in the preseason AP poll, but a national title is all that really matters.

"When I first was getting recruited under [former ND coach] Charlie Weis, the year before I got there was the worst season in Notre Dame history," said fifth-year senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. "A lot of my friends were [saying], 'Why are you going to Notre Dame? They're horrible.' Coach Weis, he challenged our class: 'Let your class be the one to try to get Notre Dame back on top.' When he told me that, I thought that was awesome."

So here they are. Notre Dame versus Bama. Awesome versus Brink of Dynasty. These are two old-school programs that have undergone liposuction and facelifts.

If Bama wins, Saban gets to military press the crystal football again. The Crimson Tide's superpower status will be forever secure.

If Notre Dame wins, Kelly will have done what the previous three Irish coaches couldn't do: make ND football matter again. And he'll have done it using Bama as a role model.

This is a game in which the final score will signal the continuation of Bama's (and the SEC's) rule, or perhaps the beginnings of a Notre Dame title run. Whatever happens, this game will be remembered, as will the people who played in it.

Even those who don't live in Birmingham.

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