It's official. No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama will square off for the national title on January 7 at Sun Life Stadium, the first meeting between the two storied programs in over a quarter-century. For Alabama, it's simply more of the same, as the Crimson Tide will be playing for their third national title in four years and in their fourth BCS bowl in the past five seasons.
For the Fighting Irish, it's a different story. Not only is this their first BCS bowl in six seasons, but it's also their first January bowl of any kind during that stretch. Notre Dame was dominated in two BCS appearances under Charlie Weis, falling 34-20 to Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and 41-14 to LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl.
Will it be more of the same BCS ineptitude for Notre Dame in Miami next month? Absolutely not. Brian Kelly's team is far more suited to face an elite program such as Alabama than any of Weis' teams. Let's look at five reasons why the Irish will be a much stronger opponent for the Tide than they were for the Buckeyes or Tigers.
If you notice a common theme, well, it's because it's the one thing that has defined the 2012 Fighting Irish.
2012 Rushing Defense: 92.42 yards per game (No. 4 nationally)
2006 Rushing Defense: 136.8 yards per game (No. 61 nationally)
Stanford's Stepfan Taylor and Pitt's Ray Graham were able to crack the 100-yard barrier against the Irish, but no one else, including Michigan's Denard Robinson, Michigan State's LeVeon Bell and USC's Silas Redd could reach the century mark. Notre Dame did not allow a rushing touchdown in their first seven games.
2012 Scoring Defense: 10.33 points per game (No. 1 nationally)
2006 Scoring Defense: 23.85 points per game (No. 67 nationally)
The highlight of the Notre Dame defense's season may have been going from Sept. 8 to Oct. 13 without allowing a touchdown. Pittsburgh's 26 points were the most allowed in one game by the Irish, but that took three overtimes to get there. The high-powered offenses of Oklahoma and USC could both only manage 13 points against Bob Diaco's unit.
2012 Sacks: 2.83 per game (No. 14 nationally)
2006 Sacks: 2.38 per game (No. 38 nationally)
The Irish have been able to aid its young secondary by generating pressure on quarterbacks without rushing more than four defenders. Stephon Tuitt finished tied for seventh in the nation with 12 sacks, and even the great Manti Te'o added pass rushing ability to his already stellar repertoire this season.
2012 Interceptions Forced: 16 (No. 17 nationally)
2006 Interceptions Forced: 11 (No. 74 nationally)
Notre Dame was the victim for much of 2011 in the turnover battle, but turned that around this season to average almost one fewer turnover than its opponents per game. Te'o was responsible for almost half of the team's 16 interceptions, finishing with seven, including a pair in the Sept. 22 win over Michigan.
2012 Red Zone Defense: 8 TDs allowed in 33 trips (24%)
2006 Red Zone Defense: 23 TDs allowed in 43 trips (53%)
For most Irish fans, the lasting memory (of the regular season, at least) for the Notre Dame defense will likely be the overtime goal line stand to defeat Stanford. Opponents were rarely successful in the red zone this season against Notre Dame, scoring a touchdown only once per every four attempts inside the 20-yard line. Can the Irish be as stingy in the shadows of their own goal posts against Alabama?