Since 2009, Alabama has been the clear alpha in college football with five national titles. That has given the Crimson Tide 11 overall in the Associated Press poll, which began in 1936.
In second place is Notre Dame with eight AP national titles — but the Fighting Irish have not won one in 32 years, easily their longest drought. If it doesn’t in this year’s playoff, which begins against the Crimson Tide on Jan. 1, it would double the previous longest of 16 years from 1950 through 1965.
Overall, Alabama claims 17 national titles while Notre Dame publicizes 11 “consensus” titles. This creates much debate, if not ambiguity, about the actual or real numbers.
For example, Alabama lost to Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, and the Irish were awarded the “consensus” title. However, because the UPI did not include bowl games, the Crimson Tide still considers it a “national title.”
Conversely, in 1964, Notre Dame was awarded the MacArthur, emblematic of a national title by the NCAA — but the school does not count it because the other three recognized outlets (AP, UPI and FWAA) split it among Alabama and Arkansas, therefore not making it “consensus” to the Fighting Irish.
Especially mocked is how the Alabama team that finished 9-2 and No. 20 in the AP poll (8-0-1 Notre Dame was No. 4 that year) counts that as a title as well because the Houlgate System voted it at No. 1 back then.
If Notre Dame were to use this same method, then it would have 21 titles. For example, in 1967 the Dunkel System made the Irish the “national champion” even though they finished only 8-2 and lost 24-7 at home to USC — the “consensus” champion USC that season. The school, of course, does not include that as a title.
Still, if Alabamans have an enmity toward Notre Dame when it comes to championships, it’s understandable. Over one 15-year span from 1966-80, the Fighting Irish helped cost the Crimson Tide five national titles (even though it does count one of them).
1966: THE START
This was the year when Alabama was attempting to become the first team ever to win three consecutive national titles.
The Crimson Tide started the season No. 1, finished unbeaten and untied (11-0), including a 34-7 Sugar Bowl win against Nebraska … but finished No. 3 to Notre Dame and Michigan State, who had played to a 10-10 tie on Nov. 19.
While the Irish and Spartans clearly had the best personnel in the nation — easily reflected in the ensuing NFL Drafts — there was some belief that a grave injustice was done in the polls based on the segregation policies that still existed in the South. When Notre Dame and Michigan State remained 1-2 in the polls after their tie, the outrage was palpable, including signs in the Alabama stands the next week that read, “Bama Plays Football; ND Plays Politics.”
Even Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, generally a gracious sportsman in victory or defeat, said “I couldn’t go for a tie late in the game” and noted how he hoped that servicemen who are being sent to the Vietnam War “aren’t going over there for a tie.”
Eventually, author Keith Dunnavant wrote the book, “The Missing Ring: How Bear Bryant And The 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide Were Denied College Football’s Most Elusive Prize.”
Seven years later, unbeaten and No. 1 Alabama and unbeaten and No. 3 Notre Dame finally had their first opportunity to play each other in the Sugar Bowl, a contest that Bryant dubbed “the biggest game in the history of the South.”
A case can be made that it was the greatest championship game ever played in football because of the seven lead changes that occurred in the Irish victory. Proving pivotal was a missed Alabama extra point that left the score 23-21. Notre Dame then drove to the Alabama two-yard line and kicked the field goal with 4:26 left to take a 24-23 lead.
It would have been interesting to see had the score been 24-21 instead, whether Notre Dame would have kicked the field goal and “gone for the tie.”
However, with just two minutes left and Notre Dame facing third-and-8 from its three, Tom Clements completed the most famous pass in school history, a 35-yard toss from the end zone, under duress, to tight end Robin Weber to help clinch the title. Bryant went to the Notre Dame locker room afterwards to personally congratulate the team and Clements for his clutch throw.
The UPI had already voted Alabama No. 1 because it didn’t vote after bowls… but if Alabama truly won it all, why weren’t they celebrating on the field after the game?
The following year, Alabama was 11-0 again and eager to avenge the previous year’s loss to Notre Dame with a meeting in the Orange Bowl. This time, Notre Dame was only 9-2 and appeared to be a fractured team after the 55-24 loss at USC … plus head coach Ara Parseghian announced two weeks before the Orange Bowl that he was stepping down as Notre Dame’s coach.
Alabama was installed as a 9.5-to-11-point favorite, but in a determined effort to send Parseghian out with a win, the Fighting Irish hung on for a 13-11 victory. The Crimson Tide had the ball at the Notre Dame 38 with 1:21 left, but a short pass attempt by quarterback Richard Todd was picked off by cornerback Reggie Barnett to help seal the outcome.
Third national title denied in nine years.
1977: BRIDESMAID AGAIN
The two teams didn’t meet on the field, but just like in 1966, Alabama thought it was a victim of politics. Both teams finished the regular season 10-1. Both defeated USC, with Alabama’s win coming on the road.
Alabama was No. 3 and Notre Dame No. 5. As the SEC champ, Alabama played 9-2 and No. 8 Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. As an independent, Notre Dame was able to play 11-0, No. 1 and Southwest champ Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Alabama won handily 35-6 … but Notre Dame’s 38-10 victory over the Longhorns was even more spectacular, giving it a 2-to-1 edge in the voting for No. 1 in both polls. Further infuriating Crimson Tide faithful was whereas Alabama pounded Mississippi with a 34-13 defeat, Notre Dame had lost to the Rebels, 20-13.
Fourth national title lost in 12 years because of Notre Dame. This led to a ballad from Alabama titled “Little Blue Nun” in which the theme was that the deck was stacked because the voters had a Catholic lean, and even included a little blue nun. The refrain in the song read, “We can beat ’em on the gridiron, we can beat ’em fair and square, we can lick ’em fit and proper, but we haven’t got a prayer.
“‘Cause you gotta know for certain that there isn’t any hope, when you’ve got to lick Ohio State and then take on the Pope.”
1980: A ‘WASTED AFTERNOON’
Finally, in 1980, the two powers met in Legion Field in Birmingham on Nov. 15, with Alabama the two-time defending national champ. The winner would be invited to the Sugar Bowl to play No. 1 Georgia (Alabama did not play Georgia in the SEC that season).
In an epic defensive slugfest, Notre Dame emerged with a 7-0 victory — with the scoring drive needing only four yards. Amazingly, Bryant’s record versus Notre Dame fell to 0-4, which it would remain, and he said he felt like he had “wasted an afternoon.”
It was the fifth time in 15 years the Fighting Irish denied Bryant’s program a consensus national title, an overall one, or even the right to play for one.
In January 2012, there was a sixth opportunity for Notre Dame when the two programs played in the BCS Championship, but the Crimson Tide romped to a 42-14 win to win their third title in four years and establish themselves as the clear dominant force in college football that remains nearly a decade later.
Still, 40 years later, Notre Dame will try for No. 6.
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