Alabama-Notre Dame a tough call for neutral fans


Alabama-Notre Dame a tough call for neutral fans

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) The pub is called the Blue Leprechaun - and the name pretty much says it all.

Notre Dame isn't too popular along this strip of bars and restaurants within walking distance of Michigan Stadium, and at this lively establishment, a couple leprechaun heads wearing Wolverine-colored hats smile out at the street from an exterior awning.

Ryan Gardner works inside, and like almost everyone in town, he's a Michigan fan. So it was a touch startling to hear him declare his allegiance - such as it is - for the BCS championship game.

``I would like to see Notre Dame win,'' he said.

The 26-year-old Gardner wasn't exactly humming the ``Notre Dame Victory March'' while sizing up this Jan. 7 title tilt between two teams that defeated his Wolverines this season. He's one of many fans across the country reflecting on a question with no easy answer, trying to choose between Notre Dame and Alabama, two of the most successful - and most resented - programs in college football.

So who does America dislike more, the Fighting Irish or the Crimson Tide? For unattached observers from Michigan to Texas, that's shaping up to be one tough call.

``I don't like Alabama more than I don't like Notre Dame,'' Gardner said.

Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988, and the Irish were largely irrelevant for two decades before coach Brian Kelly's team strung together a dozen victories this season to earn a spot opposite Alabama in the title game. Now, comparisons with the Yankees, Lakers and every other polarizing sports sensation seem appropriate again.

Notre Dame recently reached the top of the AP poll for the first time since 1993. Cue the usual prattle about Rockne, Rudy, the Four Horsemen et. al.

``We are going to have to deal with the lore again, God help us,'' Charles Pierce wrote grudgingly last month in a piece for

But when Notre Dame (12-0) takes the field in Miami to play for the national title - still not part of a football conference, still raking in money via its one-of-a-kind TV contract with NBC - the Irish won't be facing some random opponent. They'll be up against Alabama, Nick Saban's dynasty-in-progress that's been Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammering opponents into the ground for most of the last five years.

A victory over Notre Dame would give the second-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) a third national championship in four seasons. You can practically hear the ``S-E-C!'' chant already.

``The question is, who are you less sick of?'' said David Bazzel, who played at Arkansas during the 1980s and now hosts a radio show for KABZ of Little Rock. ``The hatred of Notre Dame. ... If you don't have that hatred of Alabama as much, it's that we're tired of them winning.''

That's part of Gardner's rationale. Alabama's BCS title last season was the sixth in a row for the Southeastern Conference.

``I'm not really an SEC-affiliated fan. I actually went to an SEC school (Tennessee) for my first couple years of college, but I never really got attached to SEC sports,'' Gardner said. ``It's a powerful conference - but never rooted for them.''

On Friday, Bazzel threw the question to his listeners with an informal poll, and in Arkansas, SEC pride still runs deep. Of the 30 or so callers who voted, about two thirds said they'd prefer an Alabama win.

Elsewhere, SEC fatigue is a very real phenomenon - and Notre Dame's recent floundering may have insulated the Irish a bit from similar envy.

``Notre Dame is obnoxious for all the reasons that Notre Dame is obnoxious, but they've been down for so long,'' said Peter Bean, a 2003 Texas graduate who runs the blog Burnt Orange Nation. ``It's been 15 years of schadenfreude with the Irish, so it kind of feels like you're throwing them a bone.''

Bean actually went to Notre Dame for law school, but he's no Irish supporter. The question is whether Notre Dame's return to glory - for years a sarcastic punch line but suddenly a legit possibility - would be as grating as another showcase of SEC dominance.

The Irish could be double-digit underdogs at kickoff, making Notre Dame - gulp - a sentimental favorite?

``It's kind of bizarre to be honest,'' said Joe Hettler, a 2005 Notre Dame grad who hopes to attend the championship game. ``I've been a fan since I was literally 6 years old. Nobody ever roots for us.''

Perhaps that's the next step for the Irish. Does Notre Dame need to win a national championship or two to rebuild the animosity of the neutral fan?

``Hopefully, we'll be hated back to the level that we're accustomed to,'' Hettler said.

Bean can certainly see that happening.

``This is the one opponent that's more hated than they are,'' he said. ``Give the Irish fans a chance to squander the goodwill.''

It may be only a matter of time before it's chic to loathe Notre Dame again, but for now, public scorn will have to be shared with those bullies from the South.

``Most of the Ohio State people that I talk to down here are going to root for Notre Dame,'' said Shawn Murnahan, president of OSU's alumni club of Atlanta. ``One of these two teams is going to be national champions. Which would you rather it be?''

Of course, there's a flip side to that statement.

One of these teams also has to lose.

``Somebody's going to be sad,'' Bean said. ``So we all win.''


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Evgeny Kuznetsov considered day-to-day, will miss Sunday's game in Philadelphia

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Evgeny Kuznetsov considered day-to-day, will miss Sunday's game in Philadelphia

Evgeny Kuznetsov has been declared day-to-day with an undisclosed upper body injury, the Caps announced Saturday afternoon.

He will not play Sunday against the Flyers, marking the first time in four seasons that the durable 25-year-old center will have missed a game.

Kuznetsov, the Caps’ assists leader and first line pivot over the past week, was injured in the second period of Friday’s 6-3 win over the Islanders. On the play, he slashed on the arm by New York defenseman Thomas Hickey before he tumbled awkwardly into the end boards.


Kuznetsov did not return to the contest.

The Caps did not practice on Saturday as they made their way to Philadelphia, where they'll look to extend their winning streak to five games.  

The team, per usual, did not elaborate about the extent or nature of Kuznetsov’s injury. But it does seem to be a good sign that he was not listed as week-to-week—the designation the Caps typically reserve for more severe injuries. And with a two point lead on Pittsburgh in the Metro Division standings—and a game in hand—they can actually afford to be cautious with one of their most important players.


The injury does, however, come at a time when Kuznetsov appeared to be hitting his stride. Including the two assists he had racked up prior to leaving Friday’s game, Kuzy has amassed five goals and 11 assists in 10 games.    

Without Kuznetsov on Sunday, Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle will be the team’s most experienced centers. Travis Boyd and/or Chandler Stephenson figure to be deployed as the fourth pivot.

Coach Barry Trotz is expected to meet with reporters prior to Sunday’s game. It’s possible he’ll shed some more light on Kuznetsov’s outlook at that time.

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News, notes and observations from the first week of NFL Free Agency

News, notes and observations from the first week of NFL Free Agency

A whirlwind week in the NFL, but that's come to be the norm when free agency opens. Actually, not even when free agency opens, rather the legal tampering period opening two days before the actual start of the new league year. 

A lot happened, and more to come, but let's try to make sense of it all. 

  • The worst keep secret ever finally got revealed when the Redskins held their press conference to announce Alex Smith as their new starting quarterback. Everybody knows about the trade, and losing Kendal Fuller, but this trade makes a ton of sense and Smith was a homerun at the presser. He doesn't care about image or perception, a refreshing angle from the passer, and seems quite prepared for his new role. Smith was great in Kansas City in 2017. If he can replicate that in 2018 for the Redskins, the move will be loudly applauded. 
  • We still haven't gotten total clarity on Smith's contract. My intel says three years are really guaranteed, so Smith will be on the payroll through 2020 at least. Doug Williams joked at the presser that Smith could maybe play until he's 40, and since he's 33 right now, that would be a long time from now. 


  • Smith was the headline, but the Redskins also held a press conference with new WR Paul Richardson. He was possibly more impressive than Smith, just because the young speedster was more of an unknown. Smith has talked at a ton of podiums and faced a ton of reporters. I don't know, but that might have been Richardson's first ever press conference with a room that had probably 100 or more people in it. Check out the video above. 
  • Richardson had a great line when asked about the dangers of big hits on passes over the middle: "They gotta catch me." He's right. He will get a lot of opportunities for the Redskins, and he should make things better for Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder. The Redskins wideouts did not get great separation in 2017, there are Pro Football Focus stats to back that up, and the offense got bogged down because of that. In 2018, with Richardson in place as a deep threat, defenses will need to react. 
  • The key to the Redskins offense truly succeeding in 2018: Jordan Reed. If he can stay healthy, the Washington air attack looks dangerous. 
  • Smart contract structure for the Redskins with Richardson. 
  • Zach Brown's contract is a 10/10 for the Redskins. A tackling machine that can actually improve from a strong 2017 season. Getting him back changed the entire tenor of Redskins free agency, as the team went from quietly sitting out the spending sprees (minus the Richardson move) to locking up their most important defensive player. 
  • Brown back, along with Mason Foster, gives the Redskins two strong inside linebackers. It's hard to remember now, but last September, that Redskins defense looked fierce. Injuries robbed the unit of a chance to completely gel and improve, but 2018 brings a new opportunity for that.
  • Offensively, the Redskins had to invest at wide receiver in free agency. The money for Allen Robinson got crazy and the team was smart to move forward with Richardson. He fits their desired profile: Young player coming off a rookie contract on a career upswing. 
  • The Redskins did not invest at running back, despite Jay Gruden and Doug Williams saying the team must improve at the position. Frankly, the Isaiah Crowell contract with the Jets was quite affordable, and he's a player some team sources had interest in. The Redskins do not have the luxury of taking a running back early in the draft, and I'd argue they shouldn't even look at RB in the second round. The Redskins should be focused up front on the offensive and defensive lines. A dream scenario: A player like Vita Vea or Da'Ron Payne at 13, and then Ohio State interior offensive lineman Billy Price at 44. Price would have been a first-round lock but for a pectoral injury at the Scouting Combine. Medicals say he should be fine for training camp. Washington has shown a proclivity to draft players that slip due to injury concerns (Kendall Fuller in 2016, Fabian Moreau in 2017) and Price could fit the same mold. 
  • The vacancy at left guard has not been addressed, and wasn't going to be addressed in free agency, or at least not in the early days where the big money gets paid out. Washington has more than $26 million invested this season in just three players on their offensive line (Trent Williams at $14M, Morgan Moses at $5M, Brandon Scherff at almost $7M) and the team knows Scherff will cost more money soon. The Jaguars just gave Andrew Norwell $30 million guaranteed; the guard market has arrived. The 'Skins will want to keep Scherff, and to do it, they need to keep some cash on hand. That means the new left guard will either be a budget free agent find, or come from the draft.
  • To that point, the team viewed Spencer Long expendable. He was well liked by players and coaches, but has never played a full 16-game season and missed half the year in 2017. Also, the emergence of Chase Roullier helped the team move forward without Long. 


  • A bit of a surprise to see Trent Murphy leave, but he got good money from the Bills. Washington liked Murphy, and wanted to keep him, but not at the price Buffalo paid. 
  • What happened to Ryan Grant is complete junk. The Ravens are a first-class organization, but that was a bush league move. The guy has never missed a game in four years and now he can't pass a physical?!? C'mon man. Hoping the best for Ryan and will be interested to see if his represenatives seek retribution from Baltimore. 
  • Bashaud Breeland sure likes to keep it interesting. Why sign a contract if you know you have a hurt foot and can't pass a physical? Why would the agent not disclose that? Maybe it was disclosed, but that situation just seems so weird. The Redskins were never bringing Breeland back, something I reported as far back as December, but now it seems Breeland's next NFL team will have to wait to see when his foot can pass a physical. Bree is a good and funny dude, hope he heals up. 
  • Two crazy things from one draft class: The 'Skins NAILED their 2014 draft haul. Without a first round pick, they got five solid contributors in Murphy, Moses, Long, Breeland and Grant. But now, after their rookie contracts have all expired, only Moses remains with the team. Bizarre. 

  • Credit where it's due: The 2014 Draft belonged to a certain Bruce Allen. That was the year after the Shanahan crew was fired and the year before Scot McCloughan was hired. Credit where it's due. 
  • I think a Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie deal gets done. I think a Junior Galette deal might get done. 
  • Ndamukong Suh is still out there. Just saying. 
  • So is Bennie Logan. Just saying. 

Want more Redskins? Click here to follow JP on Facebook and check out @JPFinlayNBCS for live updates via Twitter! Click here for the #RedskinsTalk on Apple Podcastshere for Google Play or press play below. Don't forget to subscribe!