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Alabama-Notre Dame a tough call for neutral fans

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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 Grantland.com.

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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Follow Noah Trister on Twitter athttp://www.twitter.com/noahtrister

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Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

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USA TODAY Sports

Tom Wilson’s suspension reduced to 14 games by neutral arbitrator

Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension has been reduced to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator meaning he is eligible to return as early as Tuesday against the Minnesota Wild. Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the arbitrator’s decision.

Wilson was suspended 20 games for a hit to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason. The suspension was announced on Oct. 3 and upheld by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Wilson’s first appeal.

Though the second appeal was technically successful in getting the suspension reduced, the lengthy process ended up costing him an extra two games as the Caps are already 16 games into the season. The good news for him is that he will recoup $378,048.78 of the over $1.2 million he was originally due to forfeit as a result of the suspension.

This marks the second suspension that Shyam Das, the neutral arbitrator, has reduced this season. Nashville Predators forward Austin Watson was suspended 27 games for domestic assault, but had his suspension reduced to 18 games after taking his appeal to the neutral arbitrator.

Tuesday’s ruling may mark the end of Wilson’s suspension and of the appeals process, but it hardly marks the end of the entire saga and controversy surrounding Wilson and his style of play. A 14-game suspension is still significant and should not be seen as vindication that Wilson did nothing wrong in the eyes of the league.

If there is another suspension, it will be longer and neither Wilson nor the Caps can afford for that to happen. Wilson still must change the way he plays or everyone is going to end up going through this entire process again and nobody wants that.

The Caps will have a morning skate at 12:30 p.m. ET which should provide more clarity on whether Todd Reirden intends to play Wilson immediately and where he could slot into the lineup.

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What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

What do the Capitals do with Jakub Vrana?

You don’t have to watch Jakub Vrana very long to realize just how talented he is. Unfortunately for him, you also don’t have to watch very long to realize how turnover prone he can be as well.

Carelessness with puck management has been one of the glaring issues for the Caps in the early season and Vrana, as he has been for much of his young career, is certainly guilty of that.

Vrana’s combination of talent and penchant for on-ice mistakes presents a problem for head coach Todd Reirden as he has to find the right place plug him into the lineup. That challenge has thus far proven difficult.

Vrana entered the Nov. 3 game against the Dallas Stars on the top line.  After a minus-three game and a turnover in overtime that led to Dallas’ game-winning goal, he found himself on the fourth line the very next game with barely eight minutes of ice time.

“We'll continue to try to remove those glaring turnovers or defense mistakes from his game,” Reirden said recently. “I think it's something that has improved compared to prior years which is why he spent the majority of the time up with those top-six guys, but it's sometimes good for a reset with some of the bottom-six guys and then start slotting him back in.”

At 22-years-old, mistakes on the ice are to be expected. But Vrana may take that to the extreme.

Not only does Vrana commit a lot of careless turnovers, he is also guilty of taking far too many penalties. Vrana ranks third on the team with 14 penalty minutes.

Mistakes by a forward are not nearly as glaring to a coach as those by a defensemen considering the mistakes tend to happen in the offensive zone and are less likely to result in a goal for the other team. When those offensive zone mistakes lead to offensive zone penalties, however, that’s a different story.

But Vrana is simply too skilled to bury in the lineup or take out altogether. With four even-strength goals, Vrana is tied for the third-most on the team behind only T.J. Oshie (7) and Alex Ovechkin (6). Of all the forwards Reirden has cycled into the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence to play with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vrana was the player who seemed to fit the best. He does not provide the same sort of defensive balance to the top line as Wilson does, but no one has been able to step in and adequately fill Wilson’s spot thus far. Vrana added an extra element of speed and offensive skill to an already dangerous line and seemed to show chemistry with Kuznetsov especially.

“There's some really good things that he's showing,” Reirden said. “The speed he plays with, the release of his shot, the chances he's getting, you've got to try to find ways to get him out there more.”

But Wilson will soon return to fill his top line role and Reirden will soon get his full lineup for the first time this season. Yet, almost a quarter into the season Vrana still makes it hard to find the right spot for him.

Putting Vrana on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie – if Reirden reunites Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – seems like the best fit. Backstrom and Oshie can make up for Vrana’s defensive issues and Vrana can provide speed on an otherwise slower line.

But at some point, Vrana has to cut back on the turnovers and the penalties.

“You've got to continue to show him,” Reirden said. “Continue to show him, continue to `remind him, continue to teach and help him grow and get better. That's a young player trying to become a top-six full time.”

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