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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Jay Gruden deserves praise for keeping Redskins 'out of the ditches'

Jay Gruden deserves praise for keeping Redskins 'out of the ditches'

On paper, Jay Gruden's tenor with the Redskins is nothing to write home about. Through five seasons he holds a 35-44-1 record, good enough for a .444 winning percentage. Looking at that, some may draw the conclusion that Gruden hasn't been what the Redskins need at the helm.

But according to Pro Football Talk's Darin Gantt, that's not exactly the case. Taking into account the variables Gruden has dealt with throughout the five years, Gantt actually sees him as a "really good" coach.

"I have always come down of the side, maybe, of guys who are doing more with less," Gantt said recently on a Redskins Talk Podcast. "I think Jay has done a pretty good job keeping things in the middle."

Doing more with less and working in the middle essentially defines Jay Gruden's career with the Redskins. Besides his opening year in 2014 in which Washington went 4-12, Gruden's teams have consistently finished right around the middle of the pack.

In the last four seasons, the Redskins have not won more than nine games, but they also haven't lost more than nine. Hovering right around .500, they've always been around league average.

Part of the reason Gantt is willing to give Gruden praise for records that some coaches would get scolded for revolves around what he's had to work with. Gruden's time as head coach has been filled with injuries and other dilemmas both on and off the field. 

In those circumstances, it wouldn't be surprising to see a team completely flounder and spiral out of control. But, that hasn't really been the case with Gruden. Dealing with what he has, the head coach has kept the team competitive for the most part. The team hasn't been a perennial playoff contender, but it also hasn't been at the bottom of the league.

For that ability to keep the Redskins out of the basement despite all the problems he's encountered, Gruden is someone Gantt respects.

"They're able to keep it out of the ditches," Gantt said about Gruden and former NFL head coach John Fox, who Gantt followed during his time in Carolina.

"I think again in the NFL there's something to be said for that," Gantt added. "When things get sideways a Jim Zorn can lose control in a hurry. I feel like Jay just got sort of a steady hand on the wheel."

Until Gruden takes Washington back to the postseason, the critiques will continue to come, as they would for almost all head coaches in similar situations. But when looking at Gruden's time in Washington with a wide view of everything that has happened, Gantt believes the head coach deserves at least a little praise for keeping things afloat.


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Numbers Don't Lie: Juan Soto is statistically better than Mike Trout through 200 games

Numbers Don't Lie: Juan Soto is statistically better than Mike Trout through 200 games

Mike Trout is widely considered the "best player in baseball," but Juan Soto might actually be better, depending on what numbers are used.

Soto has more home runs, RBI and walks, fewer strikeouts and a higher OPS than did Trout for a full season and a quarter.

That's not to suggest that Soto will be better than Trout is, but also, the numbers don't lie, and that's exactly what they say.

Other numbers tell a bit of a different story. Through the first 200 games of Trout's career, the Angels were 112-88, while the Nationals are 104-96 through Soto's first 200. Trout has a career WAR of 70.5. Soto's is 5.6. Trout's 2019 WAR is 6.3.

Trout was an All-Star during his first full season and has been every year since. He was also the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year. He's been the AL MVP twice and is a six-time Silver Slugger Award winner.

Soto is having a pretty great season in his own right. He's batting .301 with 17 home runs and 61 RBI.

There's no telling what the future will hold for Soto, but if he keeps up the same kind of production he's posted during his first 200 games, this could be an interesting discussion in a few years. For now, it's just a fun comparison using an admittedly small sample size. One thing that's certain, Soto and Trout are two of the most exciting young names in the game.