MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- In a college football era replete with run-and-gun offenses, Notre Dame and Alabama stand out because they challenge the traditional definition of "skill players" with the talent level of their offensive lines and front seven on defense. The big men are the dominant factor that put them in the BCS National Championship Game Monday night at Sun Life Stadium.
But somebody is going to make enough offensive plays to win it. That means the onus is on Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron and Irish quarterback Everett Golson to prove they are up to the moment under pressure from the two best defenses in the game.
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The fact that McCarron came out passing last year to beat an equally ferocious LSU defense, 21-0, is the best explanation for why defending champion Alabama (12-1) is a 9 1/2-point favorite over No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) in a dream matchup of two of the most storied programs in college history. The Tide is seeking its third BCS title in the past four seasons, and the Irish are chasing their first national title since 1988 with a redshirt freshman at quarterback.
'Bama coach Nick Saban declined to claim an advantage based on McCarron's big-game experience, but he said the decision to pass more than expected last year was an expression of belief in his quarterback.
"I felt like we needed to have that kind of trust in him to be able to attack LSU's defense, and he certainly did a good job executing that," Saban said Sunday. "His ability to make good decisions is going to be a critical factor in how well we do offensively. So you could say because he has that experience, there's more of an expectation that he could do that. But it's something he has to make happen against a very, very good defensive team."
Notre Dame's arrival on this stage comes as a surprise because the Irish were unranked to start the season, in part, because of the uncertainty at quarterback. Junior Tommy Rees was suspended for the opener -- which Golson started -- but coach Brian Kelly brought Rees off the bench to win the Michigan game and used him when Golson struggled against Michigan State and Pittsburgh.
"It's certainly been a year of development for him as a freshman quarterback, and he had his ups and downs," Kelly said. "The thing I love about Everett is, through the adversity, he has grown. We wouldn't be here without him."
Both coaches worry about the effect on their teams of the long layoff before the bowl game, but Kelly said the one player who benefited "is Everett Golson. He's gotten an opportunity to continue to grow. Yeah, he's overcome adversity, and he's put himself in a position now that everybody trusts he'll lead this football team."
Golson began to feel comfortable when the Irish blew out Miami in the fifth game, but his teammates and Kelly point to how well he played in a 30-13 win at Oklahoma as his coming of age. Golson used his legs to make something out of nothing, which was how Texas A&M's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel handed Alabama its only loss.
"We watched the tape of that game, but it's not only what he does with his legs," Golson said of Manziel. "It's also how he finally found his matchups . . . Alabama has a great defensive scheme, so everything is not going to be drawn up to plan. You're going to have to improvise, make plays for yourself. I think I'm ready for it."
Experience tells McCarron he can't rest on last year's laurels because this is a new game. "The biggest thing about bowl games is mind-set," McCarron said. "It's such a long layoff from our last game that the team that has the best mind-set is the most prepared in the end."
McCarron's mind-set is that he knows what it takes to win this game. Again.