Not to Be Denied?

The indomitable Manti Teo

The wait is over, as College Football Royalty -- Notre Dame and Alabama -- are ready to square off tonight at Sun Life Stadium for the national title.

"We have a motto: the pride and tradition of Notre Dame football will not be left to the weak, the timid, or the uncommitted." -- Irish head coach Brian Kelly after last year's Champs Sports Bowl defeat.

Rarely has a motto been so expertly put into practice as Kelly in his third season at the helm in South Bend.

Now its time to finish the drill.

Notre Dame will play for the BCS Championship tonight -- words heretofore ridiculous to type or read in print thanks to nearly two decades of decline and intermittent, though not sustained upswings for the Fighting Irish.

In their path stand the defending national champions, an Alabama team that serves as the standard of modern college football, in search of its third title in four seasons due in equal parts to brute force, sublime athleticism, and unquestioned greatness from program building legend and head coach, Nick Saban.

They're confident. Prepared. Ready, willing, and proven able.

And they're about to encounter a similarly equipped foe for the first time in a championship game setting.

Grown Man Football

While Alabama may not have encountered a team its mental equal and physical match up front until tonight, Notre Dame has yet to encounter any of it. The big stage, the brightest of all lights, a life-altering game that will define their collective sporting lives.

Advantage Tide -- at least until the dust settles and the first body blows are delivered.

Notre Dame has absorbed such shots throughout the season, rarely yielding a back-breaking seven points to be added to the scoreboard as an end result, and never before its offense landed the first touchdown blow through 12 games. Withstanding early haymakers has helped shape the season and after an extended break away from the game, its a chief concern as the team again adjusts to the oft-referenced "speed of the game."

Though its bent, Notre Dame's first quarter defense has to date proven worthy of any challenge, allowing just nine points on the season in the opening period and the fewest touchdowns overall of the BCS era: 10 total, nine against the team's stout defense.

Its one compared to Alabama's and other "SEC-style" fronts of the conference's recent, dominant past and present.

"I think our style is our style" said Irish senior safety Zeke Motta of the comparison. "We're not going to compare it to anyone else's. We're just going to do us, man."

Motta speak to an attitude inside the program's walls. While long-suffering Irish fans might have been initially flattered by comparison's to the dominant defense's of the SEC, Notre Dame's players don't see, or need to find, such a comparison.

For the most part, Notre Dame's defensive effort has been legitimately great this fall, but what waits is its toughest 60-minute test of the season. Nothing less than a heroic effort up front and sound play on the back line will allow them to emerge as champions, because the defense of the Crimson Tide is on par with the top-ranked Irish, and Alabama has proven it can bring its best on both sides of scrimmage for four quarters as well.

"They have a great defense, but what they do we feel like we see every day," said Alabama tight end Michael Williams of the team's similar shifting defensive fronts. "I'm not saying that makes it any easier, they're so tough, but we kind of know what to expect. This is the national championship so at some point there won't be the same thing you've seen on film. But I think they'll still do what got them here and have been very successful with it.

"We think we know what we're going to get into and I expect it to be a fun game. "

Head of Champion

"You're demanding that intensity, that mental and physical toughness that our team has quite frankly lacked. And that's what we're building. Job one is physical and mental toughness with this football team." -- Brian Kelly, October, 2010

The 2012 Irish possess an ample supply of both. So too, Kelly pointed out, does the Tide.

"I like watching teams that want to beat you mentally as well as physically," he said of Alabama's effort in the SEC Championship game. "They mentally won that game as much as they did physically."

Its likely the 2012 champion will do so as well. End-season osses by Georgia and Kansas State guaranteed there wouldn't be an overmatched or mentally vulnerable opponent in the 2013 BCS Championship game. Likewise, Oregon's humbling defeat at the hands of Stanford showed that a defensive front seven equipped with fundamentals, power, and true toughness can still punch its opponent in the mouth on every snap and thus gain the upper hand inside the lines, even against the video game spread offenses of the modern game.

Neither team will physically break. But tonight in Miami, when the two most storied programs in college football history will square off for the national title with the team left standing likely the one that simply refused to accept defeat as a possibility. Only one of the two has made good on that quest to date.

Asked to define the "psychological disposition of Notre Dame football," Kelly barely paused prior to his impassioned response.

"Fighting Irish. Fighting Irish. That's who we are," he said. "That's how we've constructed how we want our guys to play. We're going to battle you. The first time our 'back has a chance he better lower his shoulder and run through a tackle. We better finish off tackles. Play tough and physical. We want that kind of demeanor. Our guys understand how I want them to play the game. Tha'ts why we're here. We tried to play the game that way our first couple of years; we just couldn't quite get there.

"They play the game like Fighting Irish."

Notre Dame 23 Alabama 22

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