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Notre Dame-Alabama will be ‘Super Bowl’ of college football

Theo Riddick Luke Massa

Theo Riddick, Luke Massa

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Time: 7:30 p.m. Monday in Miami Gardens, Fla.
TV: ESPN • Line: Alabama by 10

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Updated: February 5, 2013 6:36AM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — This is not your father’s Notre Dame national championship game.

We gathered in the Valley of the Sun on Jan. 2, 1989, to see if the Irish could beat West Virginia. It was one of seven bowl games played that day.

Even though the No.  3 Mountaineers were unbeaten, same as No.  1 Notre Dame, the Irish probably wouldn’t have chosen many of the other dozen bowl teams playing that day for their championship-game opponent.

Now, even though it’s top-ranked, ND finds itself a 10-point underdog to No. 2 Alabama. The Bowl Championship Series computers and voters chose its opponent, not guys in bright sport coats.

Compared with the Super Bowl feel when the Irish and Crimson Tide met the media at the Harbor Beach Marriott on Thursday, the 1988 title showdown felt more like a spring game. There were no dot-coms back then. And with seven bowl games for the media to gorge on, the Fiesta Bowl had to share the spotlight.

By contrast, to get his microphone where it was needed when ND landed at the Fort Lauderdale airport Wednesday, one television reporter from Chicago crawled through a media mob on his hands and knees.

When I covered Notre Dame’s last national championship for the Sun-Times, there was plenty of elbow room for us to jot down coach Lou Holtz’s pregame observations — about his respect for Mountaineers quarterback Major Harris and the lack of highways in Phoenix. When Holtz accepted the national championship the day after ND beat West Virginia 34-21, he entertained us by doing a magic trick in which he tore up a newspaper. (We didn’t take it personally.)

Don’t expect anything like that from Brian Kelly or Nick Saban.

What we can expect is a college version of the Super Bowl that has a chance to live up to its hype.

These two schools have traditions unlike many others.

‘‘I know [Alabama] has got a great history,’’ said Irish safety Zeke Motta, who knows his Associated Press national championships. ‘‘They have nine national championships, one more than us. We’re looking to even that up. It’ll be a great game.’’

It’s true. Alabama and Notre Dame have two of the most passionate fanbases in the nation — and two of the most well-stocked trophy cases.

This is a game that features two of the best and brightest players in college football. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and Alabama center Barrett Jones are the only players in the nation to be first-team Academic All-Americans and first-team AP All-Americans.

The emotional tribulations of Te’o, who knew great loss last fall — his girlfriend and grandmother died four days apart — are well-documented.

Like Te’o, Jones handles his media obligations with insight and class. And like Te’o, Jones has a remarkable backstory: During his Alabama career, he has played 25 games at right guard, 10 at left tackle and 13 at center, his current position. He also has played the violin since he was 3.

Jones didn’t miss any notes when asked if Alabama should be considered a dynasty if it wins its third national championship in four years.

‘‘You know what would happen if Coach Saban watched and heard me say the ‘D’ word,’’ Jones said. ‘‘You’re going to hate this answer, but we focus on one game at a time.’’

Asked how he could say that with a straight face, Jones didn’t hesitate: ‘‘Lots of practice.’’

Welcome to the Super Bowl of college football.

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