A classic matchup

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban is a torn man. On the one hand is the University of Alabama, his employer. On the other is Notre Dame, his team by way of faith. The sixth-year head coach of the Crimson Tide grew up as a Catholic in West Virginia. Following Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Domers was something of a necessity.

"I always watched Notre Dame, and everybody in my family was interested in what Notre Dame did," Saban said.

Saban, 61, took a walk down memory lane Tuesday night as he recalled the careers of Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and Notre Dame coach Ara Paseghian. The two are legends at arguably the two most legendary college football programs in the country. And now that the Crimson Tide are poised to face the Fighting Irish on Jan. 7 in Miami, Saban has been drawn into the middle of the two men.

"When you're a coach, you really look up to people who did a fantastic job, not only in their ability to be successful but in the example that they set," Saban said. "I think Ara Parseghian probably was as classy a coach and as classy a human being, not only relative to what he did as a coach, but all that he's done since he's not been coaching, in terms of raising funds and money for research and fighting disease and different things that have affected his family. I just think he's one of the all-time classy coaches that has ever had success. A lot of things that he did and the way he represented the program are things that we would like to be sort of remembered for, as well."

Parseghian won 95 games and two national titles in South Bend, Ind. He and Bryant are members of the College Football Hall of Fame, which sits just two miles from the Notre Dame campus.

"Coach Bryant, in his tenure here, to have the kind of success that he had over time, consistency in performance over all that time and winning all those championships, the intangibles that his teams always seemed to play with, are the things that you really try to get your team to do," said Saban, who is after his third national title in four years. "Whether it's the physical toughness, the effort, the finishing, the discipline to execute. I know that when I first started coaching, I read Coach Bryant's book, and it had a tremendous impact on me, in terms of some of the important things that would help you be successful as a coach."

While Saban won't admit it, he's well on his way to joining the likes of Bryant and Parseghian on college football's Mount Everest.

"I know it's a little bit disappointing that you have to settle for me and the two coaches that we have in the game, but I guess that's the way it is," Saban joked.

Very few are lamenting the fact that Saban's Crimson Tide will face Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish in a few weeks. The matchup is a battle of old-school powerhouses that rely on strong defenses and a physical style of play on both sides of the ball that their predecessors could find comfort in.

"They're good, period," Saban said of the Notre Dame defense, which had its defining moment of the season when it stopped Southern California on four consecutive plays from the 1-yard line to punch their ticket to the title game. "I think any good defensive team doesn't give up a lot of big plays. If you play well in the red zone, and you don't give up a lot of big plays, you get pretty hard to score on.

"These guys do a really good job, they really have a good front seven. They're very difficult to run the ball on. They're very big and physical. They've done a really good job of, all the time, not just in the red zone."

Alabama senior guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones could agree on one thing -- Notre Dame's defensive line is among the best in the country.

"I have looked at them a little bit, and I think they're very, very talented and very, very disciplined and effective," said Jones, calling Notre Dame's Louis Nix the best nose guard he'll face all season.

The 6-foot-3, 340-pound junior is just the tip of the iceberg.

"They're really big, and they use their hands very well," Warmack said. "Their hands are always inside most of the time, from what I can see in the little film that I've seen. A very disciplined defense."

Jones said he has seen some of the talk on television about how Alabama might hold an advantage considering its recent success. It's true, the Crimson Tide have flourished since Saban's arrival, and the Fighting Irish are just now getting back on top after floundering in mediocrity for more than a decade. But that doesn't mean a thing to Jones. The past is the past.

"Certainly, it's overrated," he said. "The fact that, 'Alabama has been in the national championship before.' That's not gonna help us once the ball is snapped. It's not going to be who is the more experienced fighter. It's going to be who fights the better fight that night. Certainly, coach has been through this and has a specific formula of how to handle long layoffs. As players, we trust that formula."