Sometimes the stage is too big, the lights too bright, and the enormity of it all too much to handle. A championship game can do that to a first-time participant. It’s happened many times before and is always understandable when the title game loss comes to a team that has been there before. This is what surrounds tonight’s BCS Championship Game: it features a first-time participant in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team that hasn’t won a national title since 1988, and an experienced participant in the Alabama Crimson Tide, a team seeking its third national title in the last four seasons.
The Crimson Tide’s biggest advantage is that they are making their second straight appearance in the title game. The majority of the players who will play tonight for the Crimson Tide either played in last year’s title game or were on the team to experience it. And while watching from the sidelines doesn’t beat on-field experience, it’s at least better that they have been there (in the title game) previously. For the players that played in last year’s title game, most importantly quarterback A.J. McCarron and running back Eddie Lacy, that experience taught them that they can win this important a game; not only win it, but win it decisively as was the case in their title win last year. That kind of confidence can be extremely important.
The coaches in the title game mirror this experience difference. Brian Kelly, coach of the Fighting Irish, has coached undefeated teams before, but hasn’t done so in a FBS bowl game. Remember, when he coached the Cincinnati Bearcats to an undefeated season and Big East title, he bailed for South Bend before the Bearcats were brutalized in that season’s Sugar Bowl. Nick Saban, on the other hand, is the only coach to win or even take two different teams (the Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers) to the BCS title game, let alone win titles with both. Even Saban he does things a little differently each time, that’s a good thing because no two games are the same and they shouldn’t be approached as if they were exactly the same. One thing that must be admired about Kelly is his ability to get this team to believe in itself when nobody else did and when they hadn’t given themselves much reason to believe they could get this far in Kelly’s previous two seasons as coach.
Speaking of the Fighting Irish, their inexperience in the title game does do one thing that can give them an edge: it gives them hunger. The team that is looking to repeat has been here and done that already while the newcomers to the party are looking to earn a crystal football of their own. That hunger is something that has driven the Fighting Irish this entire season and it can be a truly effective way for a team to go into a championship game.
There is no easier way to be ready for a football game than to have a chip on your shoulder. It is instant intensity, instant anger, instant aggression, and instant motivation. This is what the Fighting Irish will have when they step onto the field tonight. And it may really be to the Fighting Irish’s advantage to be making their first appearance in the title game when you consider that the Crimson Tide had to call a player’s only meeting last week due to the intensity level in practice not being satisfactory.