Alabama-Notre Dame a tough call for neutral fans

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The pub is called the Blue Leprechaun – and the name pretty much says it all.


Notre Dame isn’t too popular along this strip of bars and restaurants within walking distance of Michigan Stadium, and at this lively establishment, a couple leprechaun heads wearing Wolverine-colored hats smile out at the street from an exterior awning.


Ryan Gardner works inside, and like almost everyone in town, he’s a Michigan fan. So it was a touch startling to hear him declare his allegiance – such as it is – for the BCS championship game.


“I would like to see Notre Dame win,” he said.


The 26-year-old Gardner wasn’t exactly humming the “Notre Dame Victory March” while sizing up this Jan. 7 title tilt between two teams that defeated his Wolverines this season. He’s one of many fans across the country reflecting on a question with no easy answer, trying to choose between Notre Dame and Alabama, two of the most successful – and most resented – programs in college football.


So who does America dislike more, the Fighting Irish or the Crimson Tide? For unattached observers from Michigan to Texas, that’s shaping up to be one tough call.


“I don’t like Alabama more than I don’t like Notre Dame,” Gardner said.


Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since 1988, and the Irish were largely irrelevant for two decades before coach Brian Kelly’s team strung together a dozen victories this season to earn a spot opposite Alabama in the title game. Now, comparisons with the Yankees, Lakers and every other polarizing sports sensation seem appropriate again.


Notre Dame recently reached the top of the AP poll for the first time since 1993. Cue the usual prattle about Rockne, Rudy, the Four Horsemen et. al.


“We are going to have to deal with the lore again, God help us,” Charles Pierce wrote grudgingly last month in a piece for Grantland.com.


But when Notre Dame (12-0) takes the field in Miami to play for the national title – still not part of a football conference, still raking in money via its one-of-a-kind TV contract with NBC – the Irish won’t be facing some random opponent. They’ll be up against Alabama, Nick Saban’s dynasty-in-progress that’s been Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammering opponents into the ground for most of the last five years.


A victory over Notre Dame would give the second-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) a third national championship in four seasons. You can practically hear the “S-E-C!” chant already.


“The question is, who are you less sick of?” said David Bazzel, who played at Arkansas during the 1980s and now hosts a radio show for KABZ of Little Rock. “The hatred of Notre Dame. ... If you don’t have that hatred of Alabama as much, it’s that we’re tired of them winning.”


That’s part of Gardner’s rationale. Alabama’s BCS title last season was the sixth in a row for the Southeastern Conference.


“I’m not really an SEC-affiliated fan. I actually went to an SEC school (Tennessee) for my first couple years of college, but I never really got attached to SEC sports,” Gardner said. “It’s a powerful conference – but never rooted for them.”


On Friday, Bazzel threw the question to his listeners with an informal poll, and in Arkansas, SEC pride still runs deep. Of the 30 or so callers who voted, about two thirds said they’d prefer an Alabama win.


Elsewhere, SEC fatigue is a very real phenomenon – and Notre Dame’s recent floundering may have insulated the Irish a bit from similar envy.


“Notre Dame is obnoxious for all the reasons that Notre Dame is obnoxious, but they’ve been down for so long,” said Peter Bean, a 2003 Texas graduate who runs the blog Burnt Orange Nation. “It’s been 15 years of schadenfreude with the Irish, so it kind of feels like you’re throwing them a bone.”


Bean actually went to Notre Dame for law school, but he’s no Irish supporter. The question is whether Notre Dame’s return to glory – for years a sarcastic punch line but suddenly a legit possibility – would be as grating as another showcase of SEC dominance.


The Irish could be double-digit underdogs at kickoff, making Notre Dame – gulp – a sentimental favorite?


“It’s kind of bizarre to be honest,” said Joe Hettler, a 2005 Notre Dame grad who hopes to attend the championship game. “I’ve been a fan since I was literally 6 years old. Nobody ever roots for us.”


Perhaps that’s the next step for the Irish. Does Notre Dame need to win a national championship or two to rebuild the animosity of the neutral fan?


“Hopefully, we’ll be hated back to the level that we’re accustomed to,” Hettler said.


Bean can certainly see that happening.


“This is the one opponent that’s more hated than they are,” he said. “Give the Irish fans a chance to squander the goodwill.”


It may be only a matter of time before it’s chic to loathe Notre Dame again, but for now, public scorn will have to be shared with those bullies from the South.


“Most of the Ohio State people that I talk to down here are going to root for Notre Dame,” said Shawn Murnahan, president of OSU’s alumni club of Atlanta. “One of these two teams is going to be national champions. Which would you rather it be?”


Of course, there’s a flip side to that statement.


One of these teams also has to lose.


“Somebody’s going to be sad,” Bean said. “So we all win.”


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