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The luck of ‘Bama

Gary Caruso | Friday, April 19, 2013

Much is attributed to the “Luck of the Irish” when describing impossible plays or dramatic wins by Notre Dame teams participating in sporting events. Historically, Notre Dame’s mystique trumped other football teams to favor the Irish – winning the national championship after tying Michigan State in 1966 looms as probably one of the most egregious instances according to those outside Notre Dame nation. Not until Alabama’s thumping of Notre Dame in last January’s BCS title game has the Golden Dome been so badly tarnished, losing so much football prestige that Notre Dame will in the near future only be viable to eventually rank as the No. 1 team – even if the Irish are the only remaining undefeated team in Division I – by placing in the upcoming four-game playoff system. Then the Irish can prove their talents and win back some of their lucky charm.
The luck of ‘Bama last year remains remarkable, especially after losing so late in the season by Week 12, yet only falling to No. 4 in the rankings. That luck continued when the Tide faced only a 33 percent change that two of the top three teams ranked above them would lose before season’s end, allowing Alabama to rank second and return to play in another BCS title game. Despite their incredibly talented team, they still stood at the edge of a cliff facing the whims of the sports gods.
But Alabama earned their luck. Call it an evening out of the odds. Call it the revenge of the ghost of Alabama’s legendary former head coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant who never beat Notre Dame. Whatever one cares to characterize the Tide’s ascent to the title game, the fact remains that they played and convincingly won last year’s national title against the Irish, capturing their third title in four years.
Yet as pure luck years go, Notre Dame still leads Alabama 2 to 1 in the final rankings race. Alabama fans clutch onto long-held resentments against Notre Dame, ironically, during two seasons when the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish never played each other. In 1966, Alabama capped an undefeated season with a lopsided 34-7 Sugar Bowl win over Nebraska, but finished third in the final rankings. The national title was split between Notre Dame and Michigan State, who had played the infamous 10-10 tie in a November No. 1 versus number two matchup game. Unfortunately for the Tide, both sportswriters and coaches alike voted Alabama behind Michigan State and Notre Dame.
 In 1977 Alabama fan frustrations were compounded further when Notre Dame leapfrogged Alabama in the final poll to win the national championship in a season where the top five ranked teams all finished with one loss. The Irish sat ranked at number five in the last regular-season AP poll while Alabama was ranked third. Even though the Tide easily defeated number eight Ohio State 35-6 in the Sugar Bowl, Notre Dame vaulted to the top spot in the final rankings after the Irish forced five turnovers in the Cotton Bowl and beat top-ranked Texas with Heisman winner Earl Campbell. The sports gods again preferred green over crimson.
Looking forward, the Irish will need to repair current sentiment that they were both weak and lucky. Right or wrong, the Irish drubbing at the hands of Alabama first reinforces the inflated stature many give the SEC. Secondly, the BCS title game just in one short half dramatically diminished the hard-fought and improved stature the Irish built week-by-week last year. Unfortunately, the team will need to string another series of wins together to prove that their success was not a fluke last year. Fortunately, the Irish only need to endure their bad rap for another year until the four-game playoff system begins in 2014. At that point, the fourth place ranking will be as good as rankings three, two and one – the dance card will be set and the title will be determined on the field between a few teams rather than from the anointed two teams.
Just half a year ago, it was unthinkable to utter Notre Dame football in the same breath with Boise State, Hawaii or the other historically slighted have-nots of the BCS system. Decades ago, it was undefeated Penn State teams that suffered similar indignities at the whims of voting sportswriters and coaches in the polls until the Nittany Lions broke through the bias. The era of snuggling near the top rather than sitting atop the polls is about to begin.
“We’re No. 4” will be good enough to begin a drive for the football national championship. It has been a long time coming, but it will favor an ACC-Big Ten leaning Notre Dame football schedule. It may also soon be time to renovate the Grace Tower sign and add numbers two, three and four. They all mark a way to championships without luck for any team.

Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at: GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.