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Love 'em or hate 'em, all eyes on Tide and Irish

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Love 'em or hate 'em, all eyes on Tide and Irish

MIAMI (AP) Love `em or hate `em, it's hard to turn away from Notre Dame and Alabama.

They are storied programs that stir plenty of passions, college football's North and South versions of the New York Yankees.

Well, now they're facing each other for the biggest prize of all.

A national championship.

``Having those two traditions come together in a game like this certainly creates a lot of national interest,'' said Alabama coach Nick Saban, ``which is probably really good for college football.''

Indeed, this was shaping up as one of the most anticipated games in years, a throwback to the era when coaching giants named Bear and Ara ruled the sidelines, when it was a big deal for teams from different parts of the country to meet in a bowl, when everyone took sides based on where they happened to live.

``I'm pretty aware of our history. I've become more aware of theirs over the past few months,'' said Barrett Jones, the Crimson Tide's All-American center. ``I know that they are a very storied program. We both are. I think that's part of what makes this matchup fun.''

ESPN executives were hopeful of getting the highest ratings of the BCS era. Tickets were certainly at a premium, with a seat in one of the executive suites going for a staggering $60,000 on StubHub the day before the game, and even a less-than-prime spot in the corner of the upper deck requiring a payout of more than $900.

``This is, to me, the ultimate matchup in college football,'' said Brent Musberger, the lead announcer for ESPN.

For Alabama (12-1), this is a chance to be remembered as a full-fledged dynasty. The Tide will be trying to claim its third national championship in four years and become the first school to win back-to-back BCS titles, a remarkable achievement given the ever-increasing parity of the college game and having to replace five players from last year's title team who were picked in the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

``To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations,'' Saban said Sunday. ``If you look at all the players we lost last year, the leadership that we lost ... I'm really proud of what this team was able to accomplish.''

That said, it's not a huge surprise to find Alabama playing for another title. That's not the case when it comes to Notre Dame.

Despite their impressive legacy, the Fighting Irish (12-0) weren't even ranked at the start of the season. But overtime wins against Stanford and Pittsburgh, combined with three other victories by a touchdown or less, gave Notre Dame a shot at its first national title since 1988.

After so many lost years, the golden dome has reclaimed its luster in coach Brian Kelly's third season.

This is the beginning, he said.

``Playing in this game is an incredible springboard into the next season,'' Kelly said. ``They've already been here. You come back the next year, it's unacceptable for a standard to be any less than being back here again.''

Both Notre Dame and Alabama have won eight Associated Press national titles, more than any other school. They are the bluest of the blue bloods, the programs that have long set the bar for everyone else even while enduring some droughts along the way.

Kelly molded Notre Dame using largely the same formula that has worked so well for Saban in Tuscaloosa: a bruising running game and a stout defense, led by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o.

``It's a little bit old fashioned in the sense that this is about the big fellows up front,'' Kelly said. ``It's not about the crazy receiving numbers or passing yards or rushing yards. This is about the big fellas, and this game will unquestionably be decided up front.''

While points figure to be at a premium given the quality of both defenses, Alabama appears to have a clear edge on offense. The Tide has the nation's highest-rated passer (AJ McCarron), two 1,000-yard rushers (Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon), a dynamic freshman receiver (Amari Cooper), and three linemen who made the AP All-America team (first-teamers Jones and Chance Warmack, plus second-teamer D.J. Fluker).

``That's football at its finest,'' said Te'o, who heads a defense that has given up just two rushing touchdowns. ``It's going to be a great challenge, and a challenge that we look forward to.''

The Crimson Tide had gone 15 years without a national title when Saban arrived in 2007, the school's fifth coach in less than a decade (including one, Mike Price, who didn't even made it to his first game in Tuscaloosa). Finally, Alabama got it right.

In 2008, Saban landed one of the greatest recruiting classes in school history, a group that has already produced eight NFL draft picks and likely will send at least three more players to the pros. The following year, he guided Alabama to a perfect season, beating Texas in the title game at Pasadena.

Last season, the Tide fortuitously got a shot at another BCS crown despite losing to LSU during the regular season and failing to even win its division in the Southeastern Conference. In a rematch against the Tigers, Alabama romped to a 21-0 victory at the Superdome.

The all-SEC matchup gave the league an unprecedented six straight national champions, hastening the end of the BCS. It will last one more season before giving way to a four-team playoff in 2014, an arrangement that was undoubtedly pushed along by one conference hoarding all the titles under the current system.

``Let's be honest, people are probably getting tired of us,'' Jones said. ``We don't really mind. We enjoy being the top dog and enjoy kind of having that target on our back, and we love our conference. Obviously, we'd rather not be a part of any other conference.''

The schools have played only six times, and not since 1987, but the first of their meetings is still remembered as one of the landmark games in college football history. Bear Bryant had one of his best teams at the 1973 Sugar Bowl, but Ara Parseghian and the Fighting Irish claimed the national title by knocking off top-ranked Alabama 24-23.

If you're a longtime Notre Dame fan, you still remember Parseghian's gutty call to throw the ball out of the end zone for a game-clinching first down. If you were rooting for the Tide, you haven't forgotten a missed extra point that turned out to be the losing margin.

Of course, these Alabama players aren't concerned about what happened nearly four decades ago.

For the most part, all they know is winning.

``You want to be remembered for something,'' defensive lineman Damion Square said. ``You live life to be remembered and do great things so that you can leave a legacy here when you're gone.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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When will the NFL kick off play? NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith not ready to predict

When will the NFL kick off play? NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith not ready to predict

A world without sports was impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago.   

Even under the worst circumstances, sports brings us together, provides hope during times of adversity, heals the broken and offers a glimpse of better times to come. That isn’t available now to help us distance ourselves from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  

The NBA, NHL, and MLS seasons are suspended. MLB’s season is delayed. College spring sports are cancelled. This is the new reality of social distancing and quarantine.  

In these trying times, the NFL has provided some sense of normalcy because its offseason could go on despite some necessary adjustments. Free agency went off without a hitch and the NFL Draft is expected to do the same later this month. But what happens after that? Will the season begin on time? 

NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith is taking the cautious approach.  

“I think it’s hard, if not impossible, to make concrete projections on what things might look like three, four, five, six months from now,” Smith said.  

Where we are today could not have been predicted months ago, leaving uncertainty in its wake. Yes, sports fans are desperate for football. But this scenario is just bigger than the business of the game. So, we pause. 

“The country is in desperate need of good leadership right now to make sure that we halt the spread of the virus, that we try to make sure that we are doing everything to make the peak of this outbreak happen as quickly as possible,” Smith said.  

Teams are not allowed to meet with players currently. And while the league has yet to cancel off-season training activities, Covid-19 is disrupting day-to-day business. Virtual contact is expected soon, but when players and coaches meet for the first time in person may not come until training camp in July.  Even that is in question. The 2020 Summer Olympics were scheduled for the same time in Tokyo and they were postponed weeks ago.  

While we don’t know when football will return, we do know it will.  But will it be different?  It’s been suggested games could be played without fans. Smith says contingency plans are coming together, but games without fans seems unlikely.  If the virus hasn’t been contained, don’t expect players to come out first and play alone.  

“I certainly am a fan, like everybody else out there,” Smith said. “Whether it was being a fan of basketball, baseball, or being a fan of hockey – all of that got cancelled because it was in the public’s best interest.” 

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A team could test all of its players and be in the clear, but what about when they go home to their families?  Or resume normal activities outside of football?  It’s too much of a risk.    

“Football certainly has a strong and meaningful place in American culture, whether it’s played in high school, college, or played on the professional level,” Smith said. “But first and foremost, we have to make decisions that are in best interest of the public and best interest of the players.” 

The NFL and the NFLPA have gathered the best doctors they can to monitor the safety of their players and organization staffs.  The biggest determining factor on when football, and all sports, return is what you do at home to help slow the spread.  

Do your part, stay home and don’t expect football to return before it returns with you, the fan, who hopefully will be cheering from the stands, from your homes. Soon enough it will be safe to return. And when that happens, the players will be ready, too.  

“I know that there is going to be a group of people that are going to love to play football on the field,” Smith said.  

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

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John Carlson is enjoying family time but gets glimpse of what his wife 'had to deal with' at home

John Carlson is enjoying family time but gets glimpse of what his wife 'had to deal with' at home

This time of year is typically one of the busiest times for a hockey player, especially for a team like the Washington Capitals. Had the season not been put on pause by the coronavirus, this would have been the first week of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That means a lot of travel, a lot of practice, a lot of games and not much time for family.

While stuck at home, John Carlson is taking full advantage of the extra time to just be a dad.

“Yeah, it’s interesting and great," Carlson said on a video conference Wednesday. "I think just being able to see what my wife’s had to deal with for the last couple months is pretty sobering, I would say. But, yeah, it’s fun to get to do a lot of things. Although we are quarantined to the house, it is fun to see them more. Hearing my name screamed around the house a lot more is fun."

Carlson and his wife are the parents of two boys: Lucca, who will turn 5 in June, and Rudy, who will turn 2 in May.

More family time is great, but it also comes with challenges. Those are difficult ages for kids to be stuck inside. Carlson noted he had to do his workout early in the morning or his kids would make it difficult.

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Findings ways to keep them occupied is a frequent struggle as well which is bad news for their Easter baskets.

"We've been doing our best trying to come up with as many activities as we can," Carlson said. "I think we're almost down to none of our Easter stuff that we got the kids just from pulling things out and trying to find some ways. It's been great to spend a lot of time with them, but it's a change."

As every parent knows, the days are long, but the years are also short. As exhausting and trying as it may be to try to parent with everyone stuck at home, Carlson knows this is time with his kids he would not have otherwise gotten.

While no one is happy about the coronavirus or how it has disrupted all of our lives, more time with the family is a blessing and is something Carlson is very thankful for.

"I think when we look back," Carlson said, "and hopefully this thing turns around and everything is going to be able to finish out like it was, it will definitely be a moment that I’ll remember, that I got to spend that much more time with them and see them kind of grow and turn into real human beings. It’s pretty special."

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

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