ATLANTA — Barrett Jones hobbled into Alabama's locker room in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, two crutches supporting the 6-foot-5, 302-pound All-America center's frame.
"You guys don't mind if I take a seat, do you?" Jones asked the collected media as he sat in front off his locker, his No. 2 Crimson Tide having beat third-ranked Georgia 32-28 for the SEC title and a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
He was drained.
Physically — suffering an undisclosed injury he said wouldn't keep him from playing for a national title — and emotionally after a game that he would call "probably my favorite win I've ever had."
But Alabama isn't finished yet. For much of the nation, this was the national title game. The Tide, though, have simply earned the right to play to keep their conference perched atop the college football world.
Six consecutive SEC titles, two of which came courtesy of these Tide. Standing between them and No. 7 is top-ranked Notre Dame.
Dynasty vs. Revival.
In a season that few saw coming, Brian Kelly has taken the Fighting Irish from unranked to playing for a crystal football. After suffering a combined 21 losses in the three seasons before his arrival, Kelly has the Irish on the cusp of becoming the first team to finish the year No. 1 after starting it outside the Top 25 since BYU in 1984.
"I know they're a really physical team, I feel like we're kind of similar in that way," Jones said. "They pride themselves on up front on both sides of the ball. It will be a great matchup ... we have a long time to prepare."
Thirty-six days to be exact, what figures to be an eternity as the hype machine churns for the buildup of a clash between two of the game's most storied programs.
But it's not as if Alabama and Notre Dame haven't shared this stage or these stakes before. f