FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Tonight's BCS championship between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama will be a familiar stage for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
It's not the first title pairing for Fighting Irish counterpart Brian Kelly, either.
Kelly, who has Notre Dame in position to win its first national crown since 1988, coached Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., to NCAA Division II championships in 2002 and '03. Grand Valley State won its titles in Florence, Ala.
"There is such a lead-up for this one with all of the media attention," Kelly said Sunday at the final pregame news conference at the Harbor Beach Resort & Spa. "At Grand Valley State, we were staying at the Best Western. I don't know that anybody knew where we were.
"It was just another game. It was the championship game, but it certainly doesn't have the same kind of feel."
Notre Dame has not resided among the national elite for nearly a generation, losing at least three games a season from 1994 through 2011. This year's team survived Pittsburgh in three overtimes, Stanford in one overtime and topped Purdue and Brigham Young by three points each.
Yet the Irish also were dominant in wins over Michigan State (20-3), Miami (41-3) and Oklahoma (30-13), and then there is the intrigue of which team will make the most of the lengthy layoff.
"That's probably the unknown that keeps you up at night as a coach," Saban said. "What are we not prepared for? What might happen in the game if you haven't spent the time to get your players ready? How well will you be able to adjust to those circumstances in the game?"
While Notre Dame has won five games decided by seven points or less on its way to a 12-0 record, Alabama only played three games decided by fewer than 19 points. The Crimson Tide won two of their close calls but dropped a 29-24 decision to Texas A&M on Nov. 10.
A win by Alabama would result in a third national championship in four years and a fourth overall title for Saban, who guided LSU to the 2003 BCS crown. Alabama beat LSU 21-0 in last year's title matchup.
"It's something special," Tide senior linebacker Nico Johnson said, "but we stayed so busy coming from last year's national championship game to this year's season. It's like we just kept on going, so I haven't had time to sit down and think about what we've done over my time here.
"I love having the opportunity to play for a third one, and words can't explain what it means to me and my teammates that it's the third time around, but we're just so focused on taking advantage of this opportunity to go out and do something special."
Notre Dame and Alabama are not only the nation's top two teams overall but possess the top two scoring defenses as well, with the Irish allowing 10.3 points per game and the Tide allowing 10.7. Kelly said tonight's game "unquestionably will be decided up front," and one of the key matchups will be Alabama All-American center Barrett Jones against 326-pound Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III.
Jones injured his foot during the first quarter of the SEC championship game victory over Georgia and was unable to go through most of the on-campus workouts for the bowl, but he has said for days that he is ready to roll.
Tonight's game has been branded as an old-school confrontation, but Kelly believes that staying too basic could be troublesome.
"The team that makes the most mistakes will win," Kelly said. "The team that is the most aggressive and the most willing to put themselves out there has got a better chance to win. If you're just going to sit back and let it happen to you, it's probably going to pass you by.
"Don't let the moment pass you by. Go out and be the guy that takes it to them."
Alabama and Notre Dame will break a historical tie regardless of the outcome, as each storied program has won eight Associated Press national championships. The Irish lead the all-time series 5-1 and never lost to legendary Tide coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, whose teams came up short in the Sugar Bowl after the 1973 season and the Orange Bowl after the '74 season.
ESPN, which is televising the game, is expecting nothing short of a ratings monster.
"It's probably the ultimate matchup in college football," longtime announcer Brent Musberger said.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...