(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame players trickled in Sunday for the moment they knew was coming, quietly scooping food onto blue plastic plates and grabbing Gatorade bottles, wearing shirts with “Unfinished Business” emblazoned across the chest.
When the BCS title-game matchup against Alabama became official, there was no ovation to unsettle the ceiling tiles. The Irish clapped politely, unaffected and resolute as the Tide rolled in.
“We wanted Alabama,” safety Zeke Motta said. “I think we got what we wanted.”
Notre Dame vs. Alabama indeed gives most of the nation what it wants. It also, in informal but very real ways, gives the nation what it spent a season dreading: another all-SEC championship game.
On confetti-strewn Georgia Dome turf Saturday night, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said he hoped to see a seventh straight title on Jan. 7. If his league doesn’t do it, though, its blueprint will. If the Irish win their first national championship since 1988, they will beat the SEC at its own game.
“Anytime you can play the kind of defense that Notre Dame’s played this year, that’s the style of play that you see in the SEC,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.
“Dominant front, dominant front seven, a team that doesn’t give up big plays, a team that defensively makes you earn everything you get, a team that’s tough down in the red zone. A team that kind of imposes their will on you. Those are all things that we typically talk about when we talk about a great SEC team.”
It is part coincidence and part design. A fanatical following and spending barge-loads of money on football is no SEC mimicry; it’s 125 years of history. But there was Brian Kelly on the ESPN “College GameDay” set in Atlanta on Saturday, framing the SEC “model” of rugged defense and a stout run game as inspiration for his Notre Dame plan.
It was the man who hired Kelly, athletics director Jack Swarbrick, who once stood on the sideline of a BCS title game involving Alabama, saw the Crimson Tide’s players and thought: Our guys need to look like that. Hence the additions of amenities like a training table to literally measure up to the standard-setters.
“The depth in the SEC is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Brian Polian, the former Notre Dame assistant who is now tight ends coach at Texas A&M. “When the front-line players come out of the game in the SEC, the guys that come in behind them are as big and athletic.
“The other thing that absolutely jumps out at you is the physical stature of this league. This is a big man’s league. It’s rare, and I can only reference back to my time at Notre Dame, that you would see 6-4, 245-pound linebackers. But those guys are all over this league.”
In other ways, Notre Dame has been and always will be equipped to match the SEC’s unrelenting pace. The school reported $25,757,968 in football expenses from July 2011 to June 2012, according to U.S. Department of Education figures. That outspent every SEC program except Alabama ($36,918,963) and Auburn ($33,334,595).
“It starts with money,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “You better be able to go up against the top programs, with facilities, hiring coaches, stadiums. There’s a strong competition for the elite players in the Southeast. ... If you want to compete with them, you better be ready to compete in all aspects.”
Kelly’s four recruiting classes, including the unsigned 2013 haul, boast 20 players from SEC states out of 85 bodies — a measurable but not dominant chunk. So at the moment, the real concern is competing Jan. 7. And Notre Dame’s plan should look conspicuously familiar to Nick Saban and his staff.
“We felt like we were in a pretty good position to continue to recruit very, very talented offensive linemen,” Kelly said. “Where we really took a specific model was the defensive linemen in the SEC and that physical presence. We needed to find guys like that. ... We think that was the first step in helping us move our program to a championship level.”
So there is the stout, deep defensive front featuring three starters from SEC country: Stephon Tuitt (Georgia), Louis Nix (Florida) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (Texas).
There is a kinetic dual-threat quarterback from South Carolina. And while Irish tailbacks from New Jersey and California do the toting, it’s a two-headed attack similar to the beastly Alabama combo that racked up 350 yards in the SEC title game.
“They’re just like us,” Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said. “They love that powerful football.”
The Irish love everything about this, really.
They love being the 12-0 team deemed an underdog. They love the fact that Alabama is the defending national champion and that the Crimson Tide will challenge, directly, the foundation of Notre Dame’s success. And they love meeting the country’s most dominant team on its own terms.
“What can I say — you want to beat the best,” tailback Theo Riddick said. “We have that chance.”