"It's clear that the formation of any great program is going to be on its defense," Kelly said. "If you play great defense you've got a chance. For us to move Notre Dame back into national prominence we had to develop a defense."
The face of the Irish isn't a strong-armed quarterback or speedy ball carrier. It's middle linebacker Manti Te'o, a 255-pound offense wrecker with a nose for the ball. The senior has seven interceptions and is a likely Heisman finalist.
Te'o, along with 300-pound linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, have formed a red-zone wall for the Irish. Late goal-line stands highlighted victories against Stanford and USC.
"There's some pretty physical guys that have some great toughness and some great licks," Saban said in assessing Notre Dame.
While nurturing redshirt freshman Everett Golson, Kelly has leaned on Notre Dame's running game, which averages 202 yards.
"This is just a good all-around football team with tremendous balance on offense and a very physical defense," Saban said.
If Notre Dame, making its first appearance in a BCS championship, is going to break the SEC's strangle hold on the crystal ball trophy, the Irish will try to beat 'Bama at its own game.
And Kelly will try to uphold a Notre Dame tradition, by winning a national title in his third season as coach. Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won it all in Year 3 playing in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
Notre Dame will try to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start the season unranked and win a national title.
Expect plenty of fans to be watching. With the popularity of both programs, the second-to-last BCS title game is expected to be the highest rated ever. Though it might be hard for many fans to choose. While there are plenty of fans tired of watching the SEC win championships, Notre Dame has always been the program people love to hate.
"I don't know if we picked up any more fans along the way," Kelly said.
In two years, college football switches to a four-team playoff to determine its champion. No doubt fans of Florida (11-1), Oregon (11-1), Stanford (11-2) and Kansas State (11-1) wish they could push the start date up on that, but for the most part there isn't much griping about this championship matchup.
Notre Dame is the only undefeated team that is eligible — thanks to Ohio State's NCAA sanctions — and Alabama is the champion of the league that has produced the last half-dozen national champs.
Roll Tide or return to glory? To be determined in South Florida.
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap
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