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January 5, 2013

HURT: It's not all fun and games for Alabama

Notre Dame laughed.

For much of its full-team media session at Sun Life Stadium on Saturday, the biggest of the week's various press opportunities, the Fighting Irish were jocular. They played beer pong (using water, of course) with a host from ESPN's College GameDay, using the BCS championship trophy as a backdrop. Brian Kelly, the coach, told funny stories about doing laundry for the players at some of his stops along the lower rungs of the coaching ladder. The Fighting Irish arrived a little late for their session but were so charming that few reporters seemed to mind.

It is possible to interpret Notre Dame's attitude as so much false bravado, the witty banter of a man joking about his execution even as he asks for a last cigarette. Those who cover the Fighting Irish on a regular basis, though, say this team has a genuine good nature that has shown through the season. And why should Miami be any different?

Obviously, the stakes (and the stage) are huge, but, as 10-point underdogs going into Monday's BCS title game, the Fighting Irish have little or no pressure. Notre Dame is a storied program, but it carries little of the historic burden Alabama bears this week.

Last year, having already lost once to LSU, it was the Crimson Tide that had the combination of scant pressure and a strong inner confidence that it was the better team and needed only a second chance. By the end of Alabama's session in New Orleans last year, wide receiver Christion Jones had two-thirds of the media, and most of his teammates, rolling with laughter at his spot-on impersonations of assistant coaches and celebrities.

There was none of that this year. Alabama was stern, stoic, a team with business at hand and an awareness of the hand of history pressing upon it. Nick Saban was the same, talking perceptively - and at times with palpable emotion - about football and family. He talked poignantly about his father, about his regret over things left unsaid when Nick Saban Sr. died during his son's first year as a graduate assistant at Kent State. His mood seemed lighter when he hosted his year-ending radio show at the team hotel, but it is fair to say Alabama seemed like a team with a lot on its mind.

Will any of that carry over Monday night? Will Notre Dame be fast and footloose, or will the Fighting Irish face a moment when reality hits them squarely in the smile? Will Alabama be robotic, fearful of errors, or will it be a quietly efficient machine?

Although few people have said it, in millions of words of analysis, this game is about two teams trying to do the same thing, and with the fewest mistakes. Alabama appears to be better equipped to do that. The Crimson Tide is bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced in these situations, facts which aren't about being disrespectful to Notre Dame.

The better-equipped team doesn't always win, of course. This is football, not computer chess. The human element looms large, and pressure plays a part. Alabama certainly has that pressure, and a nation that would, in large part, love to see that pressure crumble the Crimson Tide.

One gets a strong sense, though, that in its seriousness, Alabama wants no regrets. There is an understanding of what this game means. That may not be fun at a media day. But it may make all the difference Monday night.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.



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