The Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl is the most intense in-state college football rivalry, and Notre Dame-USC is the greatest intersectional rivalry.
Notre Dame's Brian Kelly and Alabama's Nick Saban lead maybe the two most famous college football programs in history.
However, when you combine Notre Dame and Alabama in a winner-take-all showdown, you are matching probably the two most rabid fan bases in the country, and one of the most intriguing storylines throughout the country, be it regionally or nationally.
You are also matching the two programs with the most AP national titles — eight apiece, with Oklahoma third at seven — since the poll’s start in 1936.
Oh, and by the way, the top 5 college football games in television ratings this year involved either Alabama or Notre Dame:
• Alabama Georgia (SEC title game) — 9.8 on CBS
• Notre Dame-USC — 9.4 on ABC
• Alabama-LSU — 6.8 on CBS
• Alabama-Texas A&M — 6.1 on CBS
• Notre Dame-Oklahoma — 5.2 on ABC
“At Notre Dame football is a religion; at Alabama it’s a way of life,” said Howard Cosell during the 1973 Sugar Bowl telecast between the Irish and Crimson Tide that determined the national title.
That game on New Year’s Eve registered a 25.3 Nielsen television rating, according to the research of The New York Times .
The highest in the Bowl Championship Series era that began in 1998 was the 21.7 in January 2006 by two more superpowers from different parts of the country, the 41-38 victory by Texas versus USC. A distant second in this era is the 17.8 in January 2001 when Oklahoma upset defending national champ Florida State, 13-2.
That OU-FSU contest had a lot of the same elements as this year's Notre Dame-Alabama matchup. Back then Oklahoma was what Notre Dame is now, a program that had been floundering for more than a decade, was 7-5 a year earlier after losing in the Independence Bowl, had a dynamic second-year coach in Bob Stoops, and was a double-digit underdog to the defending national champ Seminoles, who were making their third straight title game appearance.
In contrast, last year’s Alabama-LSU rematch in the BCS title game drew only a 14.0 share, a testament to less intrigue with two teams from the same league in the same area of the country.
In fairness, it probably is apples and oranges when comparing 1973 ratings with today’s. Back then, television consisted of three channels (ABC, CBS and NBC), whereas today there are seemingly endless options with cable television, including the fact that ESPN is now telecasting the game.
However, regardless of era, Notre Dame-Alabama is the best college football match-up from the intrigue of a current budding dynasty — Alabama attempting to win its third national in four years — with the one-time king attempting to regain its throne.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban might be this generation’s version of Bear Bryant, while Brian Kelly could become the new Ara Parseghian/Lou Holtz, whose impact dramatically resuscitated a program. Although Notre Dame football is never irrelevant from a marketing standpoint, it did become dormant with mediocre results on the field for nearly two decades.
ESPN broadcaster Rece Davis — who as a pre-teen was ardently rooting for Alabama against Notre Dame in the 1973 Sugar Bowl — told Jon Solomon of al.com that he believes this year’s showdown can become at least the most viewed college game in ESPN history.
"To me, it's the most compelling matchup of the BCS era,” Davis said. “Well, maybe Texas-USC is the equal of this. I can say this with complete certainty: None of the BCS Championship Games will pass this in terms of anticipation and hype and the significance of having these two programs given their rich and storied histories."
Thirty-nine years later this game still remains a religion or a way of life to the two programs. That’s why America is bound to tune in.