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November 26, 2012

ND vs. SEC a rare match-up

Notre Dame has played Southern California in football 84 times. Navy (86), Purdue (84), Michigan State (76) and Pittsburgh (68) have been yearly inclusions on the schedule for decades. The Irish have squared off against Michigan 29 times since 1978 alone.

But when it comes to venturing down into Southeastern Conference land, Notre Dame has been an infrequent bedfellow.

When No. 1-ranked Notre Dame takes on the winner of No. 2 Alabama-No. 3 Georgia for the national title on Jan. 7, it will be just the 35th time the Irish and the tradition-rich SEC have clashed.

Notre Dame's most frequent SEC opponent has been LSU, which has taken on the Irish just 10 times (5-5). Next on the list is Tennessee (4-4), followed by Alabama (5-1), which hasn't played the Irish since 1987.

The Irish have played Vanderbilt (2-0) and Mississippi (1-1) twice, Florida (1-0) and Georgia (0-1) once each, and have never squared off on the gridiron with Mississippi State, Kentucky, Arkansas or Auburn.

If the Irish play Alabama for the national title in Miami, there will be no historical note from the six-game "rivalry" more shocking than the loser in four of those clashes - legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.

Bryant won 323 games in his coaching career, 232 of which came with Alabama during a 25-year run. He only lost 46 games in 25 years as the Crimson Tide's head coach, but was 0-4 vs. Notre Dame. Irish head coaches Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine both were 2-0 against the Crimson Tide.

Parseghian's Irish defeated Alabama, 24-23, in the Dec. 31, 1973 national championship game held in the Sugar Bowl. The next year, Notre Dame and the Crimson Tide squared off again, this time in the Orange Bowl. Parseghian bested him once more, 13-11, in Parseghian's final game with the Irish.

Two seasons later in 1976, Devine's Irish defeated Alabama, 21-18, at Notre Dame Stadium. In 1980, No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 5 Alabama went toe-to-toe at Legion Field in Birmingham, and the Irish prevailed, 7-0. The last meeting took place in Notre Dame Stadium in 1987 when Lou Holtz's No. 7 Irish defeated Bill Curry's No. 10 Crimson Tide, 37-6.

Notre Dame's only loss to Alabama came in 1986 - Holtz's first year with the Irish - when Ray Perkins led the Crimson Tide to a 28-10 victory in Birmingham. Notre Dame has never played Alabama in Tuscaloosa. All six meetings took place in a 15-year span.

Ironically, considering how infrequently the Irish and the SEC have squared off, the 1980 season featured another SEC school in addition to Alabama - Georgia.

That great 1980 Irish defense had two shutouts that season and didn't allow an opponent more than three points in five straight games. But USC's 20-3 victory in the Coliseum removed Notre Dame from national title contention, placing a 9-1-1 Irish team in the Sugar Bowl against the undefeated and No. 1-ranked Bulldogs coached by Vince Dooley.

The 17-10 Georgia victory over Notre Dame - which gave the Bulldogs the 1980 national championship -- is still the only meeting between these two traditional powers. Missouri (2-2) and Texas A&M (3-2) have been added to the mix of SEC schools, but the Irish played them as members of Big 12 and/or Southwest Conference (of which Texas A&M was a member until 1996).

It's been 39 seasons since Notre Dame and the SEC have met in which either winner would claim the national championship. An infrequent "rivalry" renewed will be memorable indeed.

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