MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – They wore gold helmets Monday night at Sun Life Stadium, but that wasn’t No. 1 Notre Dame in the Bowl Championship Series title game against Alabama.
They proudly put their names on the back of their blue jerseys for the occasion, but those football impostors barely resembled the players on the roster who had won 12 straight games to get here.
They took orders from a red-headed Irishman who spent the night red-faced with everybody else on the Notre Dame sideline, but this looked like anything but a Brian Kelly team.
There was no fight in these Irish, no truth in the advertising that billed Notre Dame’s defense as SEC-styled. This was Alabama separating itself from every college football program and Nick Saban from every coach, making Notre Dame think waiting 24 years to play in another national championship game wasn’t long enough. This was downright Faustian for Notre Dame.
This wasn’t Catholics vs. Cousins as the T-shirts mocked. This was Men vs. Boys. Only the BCS computers looked worse than Notre Dame did in the big game. Has a 12-1 team ever felt the need to apologize for an effort more than Notre Dame should after its fraudulent 42-14 flop?
Yes, Notre Dame can take solace in knowing this team was considered a year ahead of schedule. But coaches can take no days off until the 2013 season begins after seeing firsthand how wide the talent gap remains between the Irish and the best team in America. It was a special Notre Dame season that had a specious ending. Losing in the BCS title game still beat winning a non-BCS bowl. But the stench from this embarrassment will linger a while in South Bend.
On his way to the field before the game, Kelly noted the first obvious mismatch with Alabama in a game that would be full of them. Four security guards surrounded Saban. Kelly had no such crowd.
“Why does he have four and I only have one?” Kelly kidded within earshot.
You might say one coach came to South Florida for the biggest game of the year highly guarded and one didn’t. Whereas Kelly savored the hubbub preceding college football’s Super Bowl, Saban merely tolerated every tedious detail. To access Saban’s innermost thoughts, it was as if you needed a username and password. In contrast, Kelly was a personal walking, talking Google.
By kickoff, Kelly had reminded us of his salad days of coaching at Division II Assumption College when he “had to take my car, turn the lights on so we could paint the field Friday night before the Saturday game.” He pooh-poohed any comparisons to title games at Grand Valley State because his team stayed in the Best Western for those occasions. He suffered fools like the guy who asked Kelly to recite a silly slogan on camera. Kelly even poked fun at his reticent coaching counterpart when asked if he ever ran into Saban when both coached in Michigan.
“Public appearances for Nick?” Kelly said as everybody laughed.
The joke was on Kelly one day later after Saban made strong-and-silent types everywhere proud by making history. Whatever approach Saban took to get Alabama players in the proper frame of mind worked. The man who joined Bear Bryant, Frank Leahy and John McKay as the only major-college football coaches with four national titles prepared Alabama as well as any team could be.
That was obvious from the first play on a pleasant 73-degree South Florida night ideal for a coronation. On the opening drive that resembled an April scrimmage, Alabama made Notre Dame’s strength look like a weakness. Immediately, Alabama’s dominance spawned Notre Dame’s doubt.
This was an Irish team that for six weeks had heard how it didn’t belong on the same field with the class of the SEC. Now they were seeing why.
The Alabama offensive line manhandled the Notre Dame front seven like no team had. Linebacker Manti Te’o guessed wrong too often and Eddie Lacy ran through lanes too wide.
As the Crimson Tide celebrated, the elephant in the room wasn’t that goofy Alabama mascot. The elephant in the room was the idea that perhaps Notre Dame’s unbeaten season indeed was the product of fluky plays that fortuitously went its way, that the outcome proved Notre Dame was lucky and Alabama simply too good.