I limited the amount of ND gear I brought south of the Mason-Dixon with me, fearing I would receive undue attention both in Miami and in Atlanta, where I rang in the New Year. I didn’t want SEC folk ganging up on me and rattling my already shaky cage by hooting and hollering that Notre Dame didn’t deserve its BCS bid. So I packed away a few things to wear closer to game time, but left them quietly hidden along with my Chicago accent so no one would know any better.
Then I stopped for gas in a Georgia Shell station. My copilot, far less bashful than I about our alma mater, wore “Notre Dame alumni” emblazoned in large, shiny, navy stitching across his chest, only to catch the attention of the attendant. He was an SEC fan, a Georgia bulldog, to be specific. I cringed and waited for the barrage of insults about Notre Dame’s independent status, the slippery games against Pittsburgh and BYU, and how Michigan and USC never really amounted to much this season anyway. Instead, he began a tale of his one and only visit to South Bend.
It was 1988 — the first game of ND’s last championship season — and the Fighting Irish were to take on the Michigan Wolverines. He couldn’t seem to remember why he was there, but he knew he slept on a dorm floor and remembered vividly the climax of the game. The score was 19-17 with the Irish in the lead. The Irish hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown and had only taken back the lead with 1:13 left in the game. But it wasn’t until the Michigan kicker missed his final 48-yard field goal that the Irish sealed their first win of the season.
He remembered fondly his stay on Notre Dame’s campus and said it was a great trip. He turned to leave but said, “I’ll be rooting for you on Monday.”
A week later I was watching the Florida-Louisville matchup from the bar of a Bubba Gump’s in Florida. Now even deeper in SEC country I watched the gentleman next to me steam over Louisville’s early interception, stunning him and the entire Sugar Bowl crowd. I laughed quietly and then turned my attention to the bartenders who had begun to discuss the upcoming Notre Dame-Alabama game.
“That’s going to be one of the best championship games,” one of them announced. “I’m cheering for Notre Dame. Alabama is entirely beatable! They almost lost to Georgia! And they did lose to that other team. Baylor, right?”
“No, Texas Tech.”
“Oh yeah, right.”
They obviously didn’t follow football closely enough to know that Alabama in fact lost to Texas A&M, but still, deep in SEC country, people are cheering against Alabama.
It seems that SEC fans, as much as they love their conference, may be sick of Alabama’s monopoly on football. Rather than see a conference rival do well, they’d rather see them lose because it’s Alabama.
And because they’re led by Nick Saban, I heard a Florida State fan say. Saban didn’t do much for the Miami Dolphins when he was head coach in 2005 and 2006, earning his first losing season as head coach with a 6-10 regular season record when they were expected to compete for a playoff spot. Apparently distance has not made Miami hearts grow fonder, and, from what the FSU fan said, it seems they’re looking for Alabama, and dear Saban, to get shut down.
Outside the SEC, people are cheering against the Tide, too. Fans of the Big 10, Big East, Pac-12 and even the MAC are cheering to end the SEC’s reign, even if it is ND who will have to topple them. Some of those habitually vocal Notre Dame naysayers are now tasked with choosing the SEC or ND, and are being quietly converted, even if only temporarily.
For the first time in a while, Notre Dame might just be the default vote from non-fans. While ND is typically a team people love to hate, for right now, for this match-up, they hate Alabama more.
Tara Hunt is associate editor of this magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.