Alabama and Notre Dame have plenty of similarities, chief among them the teams' staunch defenses. A deeper dig, though, reveals the two programs navigated their paths to the BCS Championship through similarly difficult schedules.
Jeff Sagarin's strength of schedule rankings have Notre Dame at No. 31 and Alabama at No. 34. But those two numbers don't tell the whole story. Going a bit further:
Alabama played more cupcakes than Notre Dame, but there's no separation in difficult opponents. If we're calling cupcakes teams ranked No. 80 or worse by Sagarin, the Tide beat Western Kentucky (No. 80), Florida Atlantic (No. 131), Western Carolina (No. 199) and -- Alabama fans will love this -- Auburn (No. 83). Alabama played four top-20 opponents in Texas A&M (No. 6, and a loss), Georgia (No. 7), at LSU (No. 11) and Michigan (No. 20).
Comparatively, Notre Dame played only two easy opponents in Wake Forest (No. 117) and Boston College (Sagarin No. 122). The Irish played four top-20 opponents: Stanford (No. 8), at Oklahoma (No. 9), at USC (No. 16) and Michigan (No. 20).
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So by this measure, Notre Dame had the more difficult slate, but not by much. A look into each team's mid-level opponents (for example, BYU and Mississippi) doesn't reveal much of a difference, either.
But Alabama's non-conference cupcakes have a reasoning behind them. If you're Alabama, why would you bother playing a rigorous out-of-conference slate?
Michigan on a neutral field was about as tough as it got, and Alabama won that game 41-14. But playing in the SEC qualifies Alabama's schedule as difficult -- mainly a stretch of play that had the Tide play Mississippi State (No. 39), at LSU (No. 11) and Texas A&M (No. 6).
With a schedule that already grades as difficult, there's little incentive for an SEC school to make things tougher with more than one difficult non-conference opponent. Consider this: Mizzou, in its first year in the SEC, scheduled Arizona State (No. 22) and Syracuse (No. 53) in non-conference play. Combined with games against top-10 teams in Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M, Georgia and South Carolina, the Tigers played the nation's second-toughest schedule.
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Houston Nutt, who coached in at Arkansas and Ole Miss, brought up the constant grind of the conference as being the most imposing challenge of the SEC. Perhaps that wore on Alabama when they reached their game against A&M, which saw a good team with a great quarterback win in Tuscaloosa.
"The thing that's really different -- it's the constant grind and you're hoping no one gets hurt, your injuries stay very few and you hang in there and that ball bounces your way," Nutt explained.
That's not to say Notre Dame's schedule wasn't a grind. After the team's most difficult three-game stretch (No. 8 Stanford, No. 34 BYU, at No. 9 Oklahoma) the Irish took their foot off the gas against Pittsburgh (ranked No. 59) and nearly lost.
But back to the question posed in the headline. Both Notre Dame and Alabama's schedules have their positives and negatives, but ultimately Notre Dame's was probably slightly stronger.
Not by much, though. As with plenty of aspects (but hardly all of them) to Notre Dame-Alabama, there's not much separation here.