SEC apologists don't want you to hear this: Notre Dame has a legitimate shot to dethrone the king.

In a matchup that contradicts the past six BCS Championships, the Fighting Irish match Alabama strength-for-strength. They are, essentially, an SEC-caliber team. For those expecting the Notre Dame of recent history to eventually raise its head, this is not your older brother's Notre Dame. It's different this time around — it would not be in this position if it weren’t.

Before assuming lucky No. 7 is wrapped up for Commissioner Mike Slive's conference, consider this: Notre Dame played a tougher schedule in 2012 and emerged with a stingier scoring defense than Nick Saban's celebrated group. There were no Western Carolinas or Florida Atlantics to pad the stats (smart, but par for the course for the Crimson Tide) and inflate the rankings. More than any other team in the country, the Fighting Irish earned their way to Miami.

Of course, Alabama will be the deserved favorite — the team's history and margin of victory in select wins verify that assumption — but this will not be a blowout. Fans of both teams will need to stick around. This is not the typical Offense-versus-Defense matchup that the SEC always dominates. Alabama's greatest offensive weapon, a running game that averages 224.6 yards per game with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, is Notre Dame's greatest defensive strength (No. 4 nationally versus the run). The Irish's passing game is much improved, and targets TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert should challenge Saban's secondary.

And really, in a bowl season that has offered the excitement of your aunt's month-old holiday fruit cake, college football owes its fans this much: A good matchup worth watching.

Let's just hope we get lucky.


BCS SUSPECTS

This week sees a season-ending rendition of The Suspects — here are some key players to keep an eye during this season's BCS match ups.

Amari Cooper, Alabama WR : One of the most explosive playmakers in the country, Cooper burst onto the scene as a freshman, racking up 895 receiving yards on 53 catches. He led all SEC freshmen with nine receiving touchdowns. In the BCS title game, the emphasis will be on Alabama's ability to challenge Notre Dame's oft-considered suspect secondary. With guys like Kenny Bell out, Alabama could turn to Cooper and the passing game, a la last season's BCS Championship.

Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville QB: Florida's defense is a terrifying turnover machine, so if the underwhelming Cardinals — the Big East champs — have a chance, the efficient sophomore quarterback will have to be on point. After completing 69 percent of his passes in 2012 (3,452 yards, 25 touchdowns), Bridgewater has catapulted himself into the 2013 Heisman conversation. But Florida is not a Big East defense. Bridgewater played well in big games this season, and Coach Charlie Strong better hope he can do it again.

Trent Murphy, Stanford LB: Stanford's defense likes the saying "Party at the Quarterback," and Murphy is its a primary advocate. The senior has accumulated 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks this season, and his backfield fiesta could have Wisconsin's Montee Ball & Co. on its toes. Coupled with a terrifying front seven, Murphy's Cardinal defense could make life miserable for the Bret Bielema-less Badgers.

Marcus Mariota, Oregon QB: Kansas State's Collin Klein was the Heisman finalist, but if Oregon's freshman sensation is clicking at quarterback, Kansas State is in trouble. The Wildcats are not the most athletic team — relying more on execution and discipline — so if Oregon gets its offense going like Baylor (52 points) was able to do versus K-State, this could be a rout. Mariota has thrown for 30 touchdowns and just six interceptions thus far. And yes, he's just getting started.

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame DE: Another Heisman finalist, Manti Te'o, gets all the publicity — for good reasons — but Tuitt is a scary thought for most offensive linemen. The sophomore has 12 sacks on his 2012 resume thus far (tied seventh nationally) and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron is not the most mobile presence in the pocket. If Tuitt can solve the Crimson Tide's star-studded offensive line, SEC fans could be in for a surprise.


THE FIFTH WATCH

The Watch is your weekly slate of top games. This week (conveniently) sees all five BCS bowl games finally appear on the schedule.

Northern Illinois vs. Florida State: For a team that doesn't belong in the BCS to begin with, Northern Illinois certainly faces a tough task with its coach (Dave Doeren) moving on to N.C. State before the Orange Bowl. Florida State is certainly not the worst matchup, but the Huskies played the easiest schedule nationally and still lost to lowly Iowa. Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel has not taken the "next step" this season, but still amassed 3,396 yards of offense and could pose a matchup problem for a MAC defense, even one that ranked in the top-25 in scoring defense. The Seminoles are just too athletic defensively. Pick: FSU

Florida vs. Louisville: The Gators' third-ranked scoring defense has been tested by better offenses already and has come out on top repeatedly. Florida had an argument for the BCS title game — they did, after all, play the nation's toughest schedule — so a Big East champion is probably not what they really wanted competitively. Louisville's defense is no slouch, though, and Florida's oft-inept offense will need to show up in New Orleans. Expect turnovers (and Gator safety Matt Elam) to eventually play a factor in this Sugar Bowl matchup. Pick: Florida

Oregon vs. Kansas State: This is the fourth-consecutive BCS bowl the Ducks have played in under Chip Kelly, and though they have lost two of the three outings (2009, 2010) this will be the first instance in which they should be overwhelming favorites. Kansas State ran to a Big 12 title behind Klein and Josh Hubert, but Oregon’s attack is both unique and potent. Also, somewhat surprisingly, just two spots in the national rankings separate these two scoring defenses. Mariota, Kenjon Barner and the Ducks hold a significant edge here. Pick: Oregon

Stanford vs. Wisconsin: The Badgers could not be any less of a BCS-quality team after finishing third in their own division (Ohio State and Penn State are both on NCAA probation), so coach David Shaw's Stanford team should hold the edge, particularly offensively where the team has clicked with redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan under center. Both teams are run-oriented, but the Cardinal allows just 87.7 yards per game on the ground (third nationally) to Wisconsin's 124.5. Stanford is the safe and smart selection here. Pick: Stanford

Alabama vs. Notre Dame: To avoid going chalk — yes, Alabama is the clear favorite, as it should be given Saban's history — The Watch is riding with the Fighting Irish to the BCS title. Now, history has shown what Saban can do with more than a month to prepare for an opponent, but history also on the side of Notre Dame in some instances as well. If any front seven is qualified to shut down Alabama's rushing attack, it's Notre Dame's unit that is second nationally against the run. Alabama's lone loss came to a scrambling, athletic quarterback in the mold of Everett Golson, and this Alabama defense is more vulnerable in certain areas than in years past. If the SEC's run of titles is going to end, it would be fitting to come at the hands of an SEC-esque team. Pick: Notre Dame


THIS IS WHY

Barry Alvarez should make a charitable donation.

As a reward for not coaching a single down in 2012, Alvarez made the completely selfless decision to accept a big-time bonus to coach Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl game following Bielema's sudden departure to Arkansas. Somehow, the university's Board of Regents thought Alvarez, the school’s athletic director, deserved a $118,500 bonus to "coach" one game . Oh yeah, and if he "beats" Stanford, that's another $50,000 bonus in his pocket.

Not bad, Barry.

The problem here, of course, is that Alvarez has not been in on coach's meetings this entire season and will in all likelihood do very little actual coaching in the game. Acting as a hands-off CEO must be fun, but the team's remaining assistants — you know, the guys who coached the team to this point throughout the season — will be the ones game-planning the team toward a BCS win. Alvarez himself even admitted his only duty will be to " manage the game." And hell, if we really get down to it, the Wisconsin players won't get a dime, which is the ultimate hypocrisy of all.

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So why should Alvarez get paid on the backs of others' work? Why should he be allowed to come out of retirement for one game and earn up to $168,500 in addition to his original school salary?

Here's the real question: If this were not a BCS bowl game and the payout was not so high, would Alvarez even consider this move?

This is why Alvarez needs to take into account what he is really contributing in the build-up to the showdown in Pasadena . He is not a coach of this team; he is an acting figurehead reaping enormous benefits. This is why his assistant coaches — or, hell, the charity of his choice — should receive a significant portion of his payout.

Wisconsin made a mistake in paying the man who has not coached the program since 2005. If it was a nod of respect, then there are serious internal issues needing to be resolved in Madison.

This is why Barry Alvarez may receive a late Christmas present, but he doesn't really deserve it.