In the Zone with Jim Gumm

If you enjoy sports talk radio, please visit ESPN Chattanooga and the In the Zone with Jim Gumm Show from 3:00 PM – 7:00 PM ET daily.  I’ve been on as a guest a few times and always enjoy visiting with Jim and Wells Guthrie.  They are both knowledgeable and friendly.

By the way, new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones will be In the Zone on Thursday afternoon.

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Crimson and Clover – The National Championship

“Crimson and clover, over and over …
What a beautiful feeling,
crimson and clover … over and over”

Crimson and Clover (click to listen)
(Tommy James and the Shondells 1968)

Will the power and poise of the Crimson Tide overcome the four-leaf clover luck of the Fighting Irish in the BCS national championship?

After a month of waiting, the game – and the answer – is upon us.

Beautiful Feelings

Alabama and Notre Dame evoke beautiful feelings for the college football traditionalist. Over the past century, the two schools won their way into the American sporting consciousness with victories on the gridiron, while symbolically representing much more than football success to their followers.

*****

The Irish first garnered national headlines when, in a 1913 game against powerful Army, quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne helped popularize the forward pass (legal but seldom used previously) by routing the Cadets 35-13. Rockne of course would go on to coach Notre Dame from 1918-1930, compiling the highest winning percentage in college football history, staking claim to multiple mythical national titles, and becoming the prototype of the modern, superstar football coach … part salesman, part recruiter, part public relations master. All who have followed are simply revising what Rockne originated.

One of Rockne’s victories came in the 1925 Rose Bowl when the Irish swamped favored Stanford, coached by Pop Warner and led by Ernie Nevers. The Irish would not play in another post-season game for more than forty years. Notre Dame’s administration, concerned that such games interfered with academics, imposed a bowl ban that lasted until the 1970 Cotton Bowl.

Notre Dame’s next glory years stretched from the mid-1940s through the early 1950s under Frank Leahy. One of only two coaches to claim four AP national championships (more on that below), Leahy established the Notre Dame tradition of producing Heisman Trophy winners (Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, and John Lattner) and of playing well in huge games, most notably the 1946 tie vs. Army that stopped a 25-game win streak.

After Leahy’s health caused him to retire, the Irish endured a decade of mediocrity before the dashing Ara Parseghian bounded into South Bend in 1964. Over the next eleven seasons, Ara won two national championships and narrowly missed a couple more. His most famous victory? A 24-23 win over Alabama and Paul “Bear” Bryant in the 1973 Sugar Bowl.

Dan Devine and Lou Holtz added titles in 1977 and 1988 respectively. The Irish haven’t won one since.

*****

A year after Notre Dame won the 1925 Rose Bowl and claimed a national championship, Alabama rolled west to Pasadena and whipped Washington. The Elephants and coach Wallace Wade, largely propelled by the publicity from that game and a return trip to the Granddaddy the next season, became the first team from Dixie to emerge as a national college football power. Between 1926 and 1946, Alabama made six Rose Bowl appearances, winning four, losing once, with one tie.

Ironically, Frank Thomas – a former Notre Dame quarterback that Rockne once called his smartest player – coached Alabama to the last three of those Rose Bowls before ill health caused him to retire after the 1945 season (a year in which the Tide finished unbeaten, untied, and uncrowned … their Rose Bowl victory over USC not enough to claim the AP title from Army – not the last time Alabama fans would feel burned by pollsters).

The Tide receded in the 1950s before the iconic football coach of last half of the 20th century came home.

Former star player Paul Bryant, after stops at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, returned to Tuscaloosa. Starting in 1958 and continuing for the next quarter century, the Bear led Bama to unsurpassed heights on his way to winning 323 career games and five national championships (hold on to your houndstooth hats Bama fans – he only won five AP titles – the measure being used for the pre-BCS era).

Both teams boast eight AP national championships. Both teams were coached by the most famous men in the profession.

Alabama and Notre Dame … Bryant and Rockne … Crimson and Clover …

Symbols of Excellence

Success on the gridiron created symbolism off it.

*****

Notre Dame, a small, private, Catholic college in the remote northern Indiana woods, faced bigotry on the way to football significance.

The great Michigan coach Fielding Yost essentially blackballed Notre Dame after a loss to ND in 1909, refusing to even schedule the Irish again (Yost retired as Wolverine Athletic Director in 1941). It was a mistake. Due to scheduling difficulties caused by other schools following Yost’s lead, Notre Dame would embark on a coast-to-coast scheduling strategy in the 1920s and 1930s just as college football popularity soared. Rockne’s Ramblers evolved into the nation’s most famous football team, “subway alumni” making the Irish the most beloved team in America (and the most despised too for that matter).

An enduring example of the animosity toward ND took place in 1924, just months before the famous Rose Bowl win over Stanford. Notre Dame students scrapped with Ku Klux Klan members who were descending upon South Bend in an effort to curb what they believed to be a growing Catholic influence in the U.S. – an influence epitomized by the university. Like Yost, the Klan lost … not just that fight, but also the broader battle for public opinion, the hooded heads losing power across most of the nation during the same decades the Irish football team rose to prominence.

*****

Alabama faced its own bias and slights.

Like the rest of the deep South, the state lagged economically and educationally in the aftermath of the Civil War and well into the 20th century (by most measures, the region still trails most of the country). When the football team began to have success, southerners – not just Alabamians – began to identify with the Tide.

This regional pride reached a peak under Coach Bryant’s leadership when his teams – often small, and until the early 1970s all white – competed and won against all the big boys of the college football world. The losses in the polls seemed to verify this bias against Alabama – and by extension the whole of Dixie – not just 1945, but 1966 when Alabama had not a blemish but got out-voted in favor of a Notre Dame team that played for a tie against Michigan State and didn’t even go to a bowl. Or, 1977 when Notre Dame jumped from 5th in the polls to a national championship, leapfrogging – you guessed it – Alabama. That similar voting inconsistencies cost Notre Dame titles too (1964 for example) holds little truck with southerners sure of anti-South bigotry.

Perhaps remnants of this regionalism surface in the chants of “SEC – SEC – SEC” so common among Southeastern Conference fans during intersectional games or bowls. The South may have lagged for decades, but one of the first aspects of southern life to match – really to exceed – the rest of the nation was the Alabama football team. The Tide was a powerful symbol for a region that didn’t get to boast about much in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s and 1970s.

The Series and the Records

Alabama and Notre Dame have played five times, but all the contests were in a condensed fourteen-year time period from 1973 to 1987.

The most famous game was the 1973 Sugar Bowl that pitted unbeaten teams coached by the titans Bryant and Parseghian. Notre Dame prevailed 24-23 in a game that had a half-dozen lead changes. The next season the schools met in the Orange Bowl and the era of Ara ended with a 13-11 Irish victory. ND swept games in 1976 (in South Bend) and 1980 (in Birmingham), and the teams split a home-and-home series in 1986-87, with Ray Perkins finally breaking the drought with a home win in 86 and Lou Holtz and the Gold Domers prevailing the next year.

As for national titles, the championship count varies depending on who is doing the accounting, but the most accurate measure would leave the teams tied at 8 titles each.

The oldest well-respected poll is the Associated Press (AP) ranking, which first appeared in 1934. It has been published annually since 1936. The current cake taker is the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings which started with the 1998-99 season, and now constitute the premier determinant of the college football national championship. Counting championships prior to 1936, or combining different polls (even the well respected United Press International – or UPI) introduces faulty logic and results in silly claims of excessive championships. If Alabama counts 1973 (when the Tide lost to the Irish), then ND claims 1964 and 1967 … and Alabama claims 1977, and … well, you get the drift.

The true count is eight to eight.

Alabama AP/BCS National Titles: 1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979, 1992, 2009, 2011
Notre Dame AP/BCS National Titles: 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988

Not surprisingly, these schools also feature the only men to win four or more national championships using the AP/BCS method.

Bear Bryant can lay claim to five AP titles (1961, 1964, 1965, 1978, 1979). He cannot claim the 1973 UPI crown unless he gives up the 1978 championship (when USC won the UPI) … so you see why the AP/BCS measure works best.

Frank Leahy claims four national titles (1943, 1946, 1947, 1949).

Should Alabama coach Nick Saban lead his Crimson Tide to the title this season, he will join that rarified air of men with four or more national titles. Saban won BCS titles in 2003 at LSU (USC won the AP that year, but the BCS rankings had surpassed the AP by then), and added titles with the Tide in 2009 and 2011.

The National Mood

For the first time in my memory (and I’ve been an avid follower of college football since the late 1960s), it seems more people will be rooting for Notre Dame than against the Irish. A few factors seem in play here.

First, it's been a long time since Notre Dame was truly an impact player on the national stage. The Irish haven't won a title since 1988 and haven't contended for one since 1993. The old animosities about preferential treatment in polls, resentment about national coverage and having a special television contract … all of that is old news for everybody except some of us old-timers. Everybody is on television every game these days. If anything, Notre Dame would probably get voted out of a polling contest against the power conferences.

Second (and third) is the SEC fatigue factor. The conference has won six national titles in a row and is strongly favored to get another. Unlike most conferences, where rivals would pull for nearly any team over their arch enemy, you can bet all the SEC fan bases (excepting Auburn) will by and large pull for the Tide in this game. That rubs pretty much everybody else the wrong way. A similar sentiment is settling in regarding Alabama and Nick Saban. Yes, he is a great coach and the Tide is a juggernaut of a program, but I would guess people across the country are thinking enough already, let somebody else in on the fun.

The Big Game

Alabama is a solid favorite and it’s hard to argue against the conventional wisdom. More words and better analysis can be found at other sites, but here are my keys to the game:

1. Everett Golson: Alabama struggles on occasion with mobile quarterbacks, and the Irish redshirt freshman can extend plays. He is no Johnny Manziel (who is?), so don’t expect him to snap off any 30-yard scrambles, but he can avoid the pass rush and does have a strong arm. If Golson can handle the pressure – literally from the Tide pass rush but also figuratively from playing in the biggest game of the year – the Irish might be able to score enough points to make the game interesting late.

2. UA Offense and ND Defense Line of Scrummage: Yes, scrummage is the correct word because these two groups figure to have a rugby scrum on most plays. Alabama has the best offensive line in the nation and the group typically imposes its will (see 2nd half of Georgia game) by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. Still, Barrett Jones and company will be in for a tussle because the ND front three of Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore is a big, seasoned, and tough group. They are not deep however, so keeping the Tide from dominating the clock will be important.

3. Loose and Clutch: Ever let the clutch out on your car too loosely or quickly and killed the motor? Or, kept the clutch pressed too tightly causing the engine to rev and stall? Combine a long layoff with a hugely important game and these squads might be too tight. The team that finds the balance between being loose, but playing well in the clutch will have a big advantage. It’s tough to do after a half-season’s layoff and neither team played a truly tough schedule to get them ready. Listening to and reading pundits and fans, many seem to feel Notre Dame had an easier schedule, but neither team played a gangbuster slate. Alabama’s games at Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee were much easier than expected and the Tide choked a little in a home loss to Texas A&M. The best Bama win came against Georgia in an epic SEC championship game. Notre Dame’s wins over USC, Michigan, Michigan State, and Oklahoma look less and less impressive in retrospect, and the Irish tried to give away a game to a Pitt team that just got demolished by Ole Miss. ND barely held off a very good Stanford for the top Irish win of the season. Loose and clutch … watch to see who plays that way.

A final topic worth noting is attitude.

Notre Dame fans feel they’ve already won this season just by getting to the BCS title game, a totally unexpected run after back-to-back 8-5 seasons in Brian Kelly’s first two years in South Bend. A loss to Alabama will hurt, but not diminish the pleasure of a return to elite status after two decades. The players may feel differently, but I cannot imagine that they are anything but thrilled to be in the last and biggest game of them all. Whether that translates to a relaxed, confident team or not is to be determined.

For the Alabama contingent – players, coaches, and fans – nothing less than a third national championship in four years will mark this season as a success. A loss to the team many Bama fans despise above all others would be a sting that would linger. The last time Alabama lost a game that really hurt was the 2010 Iron Bowl when Auburn overcame a 24-0 deficit and moved on to a national championship. In some ways, I think this group still plays with a chip on the shoulder from that loss.

Prediction

Alabama should win the game, and probably will, but I won’t make a prediction.

This one is too much fun. The nation’s most famous programs. The nation’s top two teams. The season’s final game.

Crimson and Clover … over and over … Crimson and Clover …

I could watch this one over and over.

Enjoy the game.