Notre Dame vs. Alabama: Examining History of the Rivalry Between Great Programs

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterDecember 10, 2012

23 Sep 1989:  Coach Lou Holtz of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish gives instructions to his players during a game against the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.  Notre Dame won the game 21-13. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Notre Dame and Alabama are setting up for a heavyweight title fight on the field in Miami this January. For Notre Dame, it is a push on to the big stage after being off the big stage for quite some time. For Alabama, it is the team's second trip in as many years and third title shot in four years.

History will certainly be an overwhelming theme leading up to this big ball game. The Heisman's of Notre Dame and the Championships of Alabama. Though nothing that happens in Sunlife Stadium will be impacted by guys like Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz or Bear Bryant, these names will be on the minds of the longtime college football fan.

These teams are not just heavyweights on the field; in the college football world of pageantry, tradition and success both Alabama and Notre Dame are among the nation's best. When these teams meet in 2013, they will be picking up a rivalry that has laid dormant since 1987.

The Irish and the Tide have only played six times on the gridiron: twice in a major bowl, twice in Tuscaloosa and twice in South Bend. The Fighting Irish lead the series 5-1 and have the belt when it comes to the most recent victory.

1987 saw Lou Holtz, in his second year with the Irish, beat the Tide 37-6 in South Bend to start Alabama's slide to end the season. The 11th-ranked Crimson Tide, coached by Bill Curry, finished the season unranked after three straight losses at the hands of Notre Dame, Auburn and then Michigan in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

For the Fighting Irish, the 8-4 record was an improvement over Holtz's first season, but like the Tide, Notre Dame would finish 1987 with three straight losses. After beating up on Alabama, the Irish fell to Penn State, Miami and Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. 

The 1987 win was a bit of vengeance for the season before from the Irish's perspective. Alabama, the second ranked team in the country, hosted and beat up the Irish 28-10 in 1986. It was Holtz's first season in South Bend and the Crimson Tide were not the only team that imposed their will on Notre Dame; the team finished 5-6.

In Ray Perkins' last year leading Alabama, before he took off for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Crimson Tide would finish ninth in the nation, with a 10-3 record. Of the three losses, two were to SEC rivals, LSU and Auburn, while the other was to Independent power, Penn State. Mike Shula, a name most folks remember for being the guy before Nick Saban, was the quarterback for the only Alabama team to beat Notre Dame.

The 1986 and 1987 games are the bottom third of the contests these teams have played against one another. No national titles on the line, each game would feature a road team that ultimately ended up unranked and two games that ultimately had large margins of victory. 

The previous two installments came in 1980 and 1976, games that saw both teams come in ranked and fighting towards the top of the college football world. In 1976, the Irish and Tide were ranked 18th and 10th, respectively, and played a nail-biter of a game that saw Notre Dame win 21-18.

Speaking of nail-biters, the 1980 edition was a 7-0, Notre Dame win that saw the sixth-ranked Irish pull out a defensive battle against the fifth-ranked Tide. To hear Bear Bryant talk about it, it was the type of game that would get defensive guys like myself pumped up for football. Hard hits, hard running and tough defense.

Where tough defense is concerned, 1974 has all of those elements as well. Throw in a national title on the line for the Crimson Tide and you get a big stage meeting for high stakes. Coach Ara Parseghian helped guide his ninth-ranked team to a 13-11 victory over Bryant's second-ranked Tide. Had the Tide won this Orange Bowl, they likely would lay claim to yet another title.

Which brings us to the Sugar Bowl following the 1973 season. One of the greatest games of all time. A game that was labeled "The Game of the Century" between the third-ranked Irish and the top-ranked Tide. A season where both Notre Dame and Alabama claimed a national title. A season where Parseghian answered a challenge from Bear to come play the best of the south.

Hard to fathom now, with bowl tie-ins and the BCS and contracts and money, but Notre Dame turned down a more lucrative Orange Bowl invite, to take on the top-ranked Tide. As the New York Times reports, it was a North versus the South battle. Broadcasting legend Howard Cosell might have put it best when he said:

“This is the dream matchup: Notre Dame-Alabama. At Notre Dame, football is a religion. At Alabama, it is a way of life.”

A dream it was, as the Tide and Irish played the game down to the final minutes, the difference between a tie and the 24-23 Notre Dame victory was a missed extra point by the Crimson Tide. A late Irish first down, by an unlikely tight end's reception, was the difference in the game as Alabama never got the ball back to try for the win.

This truly was one of the greatest games ever played. Not just because of the on the field drama, but because of the overall impact it would have as well. Guys like Wilbur Jackson and John Mitchell, Alabama's first two black scholarship football players, were featured in this game as captains for the Crimson Tide; a team that was all white just a few short years before.

The win by Notre Dame pushed it to number one in the AP Poll, giving the Irish the right to claim a national title. However, Alabama would not be shut out from claiming a title of its own; the UPI Poll voted the Tide first in their final poll at the end of the regular season. Thus, in 1973, both Alabama and Notre Dame claimed a title, even though the Irish beat the Tide to end the season.

History between the two programs, though limited, is strong. January will not be the first time that the two have met with a title hanging in the balance. However, unlike 1973, the 2013 meeting will only have one team claiming a champion. Notre Dame has dominated the series, but given none of the players taking the field were born at the time of the last contest, that dominance will be a non-issue.

It is nice to look at the past, but once the ball is kicked off all that matters will be the guys on the field now. However, in keeping with the history of this rivalry, we can certainly expect some good defense and hard hitting action.