Sunday, April 22, 2018
Colleges

Gary Shelton: Storied Notre Dame and Alabama programs both deserving of this ending

MIAMI

Listen, and you will hear a great many things about Notre Dame.

You will hear the Fighting Irish are unbeaten, and they are untied, and they are No. 1. You will hear they are stubborn, and they are opportunistic, and they are driven. You will hear they are one victory from waking up the echoes.

Somewhere along the way, you may also hear this:

Frankly, they were supposed to be next year's team.

Pay attention, and you will hear a lot about Alabama, too.

You will hear the Crimson Tide is relentless, and it is skilled, and it is nearly a 10-point favorite. You will hear it is talented, and it is physical, and that an opponent has to be two touchdowns better to win by one. You will hear it is one win away from being labeled as a dynasty.

Somewhere along the way, you may also hear this:

To many, it is still last year's team.

Here we are, on the brink of a national championship, at a time when the world waits to label greatness on this program or that one. Gentlemen, break out your thesaurus. The team on this sideline is terrific, and the team on that sideline is wonderful. Somewhere during the game, we will decide which team is splendid.

But here's a question:

How good are these teams, really? When you compare them with other champions, with other great teams these schools have fielded, how do these stack up? How do you measure greatness, and how do you compare achievement?

This first. No one is suggesting the winner of this game doesn't deserve the title. Someone has to get it. In a way, it says something special about a team that can win when it isn't at its most talented. It says a team is finding other ways to scale the mountain.

But can you really compare this Alabama team to last year's team that sent six starters from its defense to the NFL, including three of them in the first round? Probably not. When a team loses that much skill, it has to have times when it misses it. And as admirable as the accelerated success of Notre Dame has been, can greatness really be achieved this quickly?

"I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday. "If you look at all the players we lost last year, the leadership that we lost, the injuries that we've had … I'm really proud of what this team was able to accomplish.

"I knew there were a lot of challenges for this team. You're always trying to overcome the entitlement factor when you have success. It's human nature that when you have success, you're supposed to get a couple of days off, right? The challenge for this team was to not have that."

Along the way, Alabama lost to Texas A&M, almost lost to LSU and struggled against Georgia. It was a mortal Alabama team.

But center Barrett Jones will tell you that it isn't just about Alabama. Over the last four years, he thinks the most talented Tide team he played on was the 2010 version, which is the only one that hasn't played for a title.

In other words, winning is about more than indescribable talent. It's also performing under pressure, and learning not to take days off, and finding a way to win at the end.

Ask the scouts, and they will tell you this Alabama team isn't as gifted as last year's. For that matter, if you graded the six straight national champions that have come in a row, this Alabama team may not quite match up with any. As Saban points out, there are only nine seniors on this year's team. The expectations weren't exactly through the roof.

Notre Dame can tell you all about that. It started the season outside of the top 10, then spent the year building its momentum. It barely survived Purdue, and BYU, and Pitt, and Stanford. Before you knew it, Notre Dame wasn't about next year, after all. It was about this year.

"One, an outstanding group of seniors really helped transform our program from one where we thought we could do to 'We're going to do it,' " Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "I think some key plays and key games put that over the top, as well."

Except for linebacker Manti Te'o, however, there isn't staggering talent on display for Notre Dame, either. The defense is solid, and the offense has made big plays. But for a school that has won a lot of titles by being more talented than its foes, this team won't go down as one that skates purely on skill.

That said, this could be the Notre Dame team that brings the standards back to the Irish. This could be a champion.

And for Alabama? This could be the team that cements the team's current run as the best in all of college football. This, too, could be a champion.

For one team, or for the other, that will be enough greatness to go around.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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