On one side, a blossoming dynasty from the college football capital of the Deep South. On the other, the sport's most famous team, trying to reclaim its place among the elite.
Notre Dame and Alabama finished in the top two spots in the final BCS standings released Sunday. The legendary programs
bring star power and power football to the Discover BCS National Championship.
That matchup was certain after Notre Dame finished 12-0 and Alabama won the SEC Championship Game.
The other BCS bowls weren't so clear until Sunday night and Mid-American champion Northern Illinois crashed the party.
Northern Illinois finished No. 15 to bust the BCS and will play Florida State in the Discover Orange Bowl.
The remaining BCS bowls are: No. 3 Florida (11-1) vs. Big East champion Louisville (10-2) in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, No. 5 Kansas State (11-1) vs. No. 4 Oregon (11-1) in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and No. 6 Stanford (11-2) vs. Big Ten champion Wisconsin (8-5) in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.
To earn the bid, NIU (12-1) finished in the top 16 and ahead of at least one conference champion from an automatic qualifying conference. Northern Illinois is ranked above both the Big East's Louisville and the Big Ten's Wisconsin.
NIU's guaranteed spot knocked out No. 11 Oklahoma, projected as an at-large selection, from going to the Sugar Bowl.
As for the main event, it's No. 1 Notre Dame against No. 2 Alabama in Miami on Jan. 7.
The Irish clinched their spot a week ago in Los Angeles by completing a perfect season against rival Southern California.
"The tradition of Alabama and Notre Dame brings special attention to it, but we're just trying to the best team on Monday, Jan. 7," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday night. "All of that tradition, what's happened in the past, is not going to help us Jan. 7, but we do respect the traditions."
Alabama earned its spot Saturday, beating Georgia 32-28 in a thrilling Southeastern Conference title game.
The program that coach Paul Bryant turned into an SEC behemoth in the 1960s and 70s, winning five national championships and sharing another during his tenure, is again dominating college football with a modern-day version of the Bear leading the way in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are on the verge of one of the great runs in history. Alabama would become the first team to repeat as champs since the Bowl Championship Series was implemented in 1998, and it would be the 11th time a team has won consecutive AP titles since the poll started in 1936. Alabama is already one of seven programs to repeat. The Tide has done it twice. Notre Dame is another.
Alabama also won the 2009 BCS championship under Saban. The last team to win three major national titles in four seasons was Nebraska, which went back-to-back in 1994 and '95 and finished No. 1 in the final coaches' poll in 1997.
In a world full of spread-the-field, hurry-up offenses, the Tide is an homage to traditional football.
The Tide put its no-frills muscle on display Saturday, mashing Georgia with 350 yards rushing, most impressively when Alabama trailed 21-10 in the second half and you might have expected the Tide to open up its passing game.
Eddie Lacy, listed at a conservative 220 pounds, went for 181 yards against the Bulldogs to up his season total to 1,182 with 17
touchdowns. T.J. Yeldon, at 216 pounds, provides more speed with his punch. The freshman has run for 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
But this is no three yards and a cloud of dust. Both backs average over six yards per carry, behind an offensive line anchored by All-American center Barrett Jones. And quarterback AJ McCarron has thrown for 26 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
The Tide has been more potent offensively this season than last to make up for a defense that has slipped, but only a bit. Alabama leads the nation in total defense (246 yards per game) and is second in points allowed (10.7 per game). Linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Nico Johnson, CJ Mosley and Trey Depriest average 242 pounds.
When Brian Kelly was hired at Notre Dame three years ago, he looked at Alabama and the SEC, which has won six straight BCS titles, and decided the Irish needed to play like that.
Kelly built his reputation and winning teams at previous stops on fast-paced spread offenses. In South Bend, Ind., he has put the fight back in the Irish, who have won eight AP national titles -- only Alabama has as many -- but none since 1988.
Notre Dame has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (10) and is sixth overall in total defense (286 yards per game). 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 shadows 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.
The trip to Miami for game got a bit cheaper for Notre Dame students on Sunday. The school posted on its official Web site that the cost of tickets for students would now be $150 instead of $300 due to a generous anonymous donation.
Josh Berlo, an assistant senior athletics director in charge of ticketing at Notre Dame, said the school doesn't disclose donation amounts, but a representative for the Leprechaun Legion, the student body organization for Irish sports, said there are 2,500 student tickets available. That would put the donation at $375,000.
Students still have to be fortunate enough to win the tickets via random lottery, details of which were posted online on Sunday. Students will find out if they won the rights to buy one ticket, which includes a service fee of $20, on Dec. 10.
The cheapest ticket on resale website StubHub was $1,490 as of 9:30 p.m. ET on Sunday night.
Expect plenty to be watching from home, too. With the popularity of both programs, the second-to-last BCS title game is expected to be the highest rated ever.
NIU is the first team from a BCS non-automatic qualifying conference to play in a BCS bowl since TCU, then in the Mountain West, played in the 2011 Rose Bowl. NIU is the eighth non-AQ team to play in the BCS bowl in the past nine seasons. NIU also is the first MAC team ever to play in a BCS bowl.
NIU coach Dave Doeren took the NC State job Saturday and will not coach in the Orange Bowl, marking the second time in four years a coach earned a BCS bowl berth but left for another job. In the 2009 season, Kelly led Cincinnati to a 12-0 record and Sugar Bowl berth but left for Notre Dame.
Northern Illinois offensive line coach Rod Carey was promoted to coach the Huskies in the Orange Bowl. Carey's promotion is full-time and not an interim position. CBSSports.com earlier reported Carey's hiring.
"We are sure excited," said Carey, just before learning the team made the Orange Bowl. "It's been a crazy weekend up here at Northern Illinois."
The Huskies do have what they consider to be some solid resume points -- a 12-game winning streak, tying Ohio State and Notre Dame for the longest current run in the nation, and a quarterback who is widely considered to be a star even without being a household name. Jordan Lynch ranks third nationally in total offense at 364.1 yards per game, behind only Baylor's Nick Florence (387.7) and Texas A&M's Heisman-hopeful Johnny Manziel (383.3).
"We're 12-1," Lynch told ESPN. "We faced tons of adversity this year. We won tons of games. ... We definitely deserve to be in there."
In fact, all that separated Northern Illinois from being perfect this season was one measly point.
If it wasn't for an 18-17 loss against Iowa on Sept. 1, the Huskies might have been coming to Miami with an undefeated record. Northern Illinois led Iowa by eight points with 10 minutes to play, then gave up the game-deciding touchdown with 2:15 left.
Northern Illinois will have to buy more Orange Bowl tickets (17,500) than what they averaged for home games this season (15,670).
Florida State earned its Orange Bowl trip by topping Georgia Tech 21-15 in the ACC title game on Saturday night.
The Seminoles have been in more Orange Bowls than Northern Illinois has been in bowls, period. This trip to Miami will be the eighth postseason game for the Huskies, who lost to South Florida in the International Bowl three seasons ago, then beat Fresno State (Humanitarian Bowl) and Arkansas State (GoDaddy.com Bowl) in the past two years.
In last week's BCS standings, the Huskies were ranked No. 21 but climbed into the top 16 after beating previous No. 17 Kent State 44-37 in double overtime of the Marathon MAC Championship.
Oklahoma (10-2) won a share of the Big 12 title and lost only to Kansas State and Notre Dame. Kansas State earned the Big 12's automatic bid to the Fiesta Bowl, but the Sooners seemed like a lock to get an at-large bid -- most likely to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to play Florida.
Instead, Louisville is going there to meet the Gators, and Oklahoma is on the outside looking in of the BCS picture despite finishing 11th in the final standings, ahead of four teams that will actually be playing in the biggest-money games.
With Northern Illinois, Louisville and Wisconsin all earning BCS bowls, it marks the first time in the BCS era (since 1999) that three teams ranked lower than No. 15 earned a BCS bowl berth.
Information from ESPN's Brett McMurphy, Darren Rovell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.