ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

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ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame features big, physical players in the trenches, a dynamic defense and an offense built around a stable of athletic running backs. That combination has led plenty to draw the conclusion Notre Dame is built like a menacing SEC team -- just like the one they'll face in the BCS Championship.

Apt or not, it's a conclusion at which defensive end Stephon Tuitt bristled.

"I wouldnt say were kind of like an SEC team. Were ourselves," Tuitt said Friday. "We go to work every day like everybody else. We showed it in the production, and we proved that."

Tuitt knows all about the SEC, hailing from Monroe, Ga, which is about a half-hour drive from the University of Georgia. Rated by Rivals.com as a five-star defensive end out of high school, Tuitt fielded offers from seven SEC schools including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU.

"Its tough, physical players," Tuitt said. "But at the same time, we have a tough, physical line as well, and our defense is tough and physical too."

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Notre Dame players recognize the challenges Alabama presents, but think they match up well against the Tide. Judging by the games early spread, though, few outside of Notre Dame nation agree with that premise. Alabama is favored by about 10 points by most Vegas outlets, and plenty of prognosticators don't give the Irish a chance on Jan. 7.

That's not necessarily a shot against Notre Dame, although some Irish players will use it to add fuel to the nobody-believes-in-us fire that's burned all year. To some extent, what those lines are the product of is the SEC winning six consecutive titles.

So has the SEC earned the right to be favored in every championship until the conference is dethroned?

"I dont think so, man," safety Zeke Motta said. "Football is football. It can go either way anytime."

If that doesnt sound like a ringing endorsement, Louis Nix offered up a different angle.

"The SEC didnt win it, the certain teams in the game won it. I dont care about the conference thing," the affable defensive tackle said. "The teams that won it the last six years so happened to be in the SEC. Those guys earned the title. I'm happy I'm facing one of those teams that won it twice already. I can't wait to play them, and cant wait for January 7."

LSU and Auburn have won single titles, while Alabama and Florida have garnered two championships over the last six years. The conference has tremendous recruiting pull, and the region produces loads of talent at the prep level every year. And look no further than Bret Bielema leaving a top-four job in the Big Ten for a top-seven (at best) gig at Arkansas last week as evidence of the conference's pull.

To be the best, you have to beat the SEC.

"They have dominated, they are the preeminent conference, they've proven it on the field," coach Brian Kelly said. "Alabama has been the benchmark for college football, in three out of the last four National Championship games. Were aware of the challenge in front of us. We welcome it. It's one that were putting ourselves in a position to go find out where we need to go from here."

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For all of the SEC's chest-beating, Alabama was in the same boat as Notre Dame a month ago. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tide needed two teams to lose to reach the BCS Championship, no matter how hard some tried to convince themselves a one-loss Alabama team would be ranked over an undefeated Notre Dame or Kansas State squad.

For Notre Dame, going undefeated meant they met the minimum requirement for BCS Championship consideration -- of course, they could've done more to strengthen their case earlier in the season with some style points, no matter how badly the team wanted to shun that notion. Despite the strength of the conference, a loss is a loss, and the prospect of not having an SEC team in the BCS Championship led to plenty of hand-wringing.

It really doesnt make any difference how many game-winning shots you made in the past, the only one you gotta focus on is the one you gotta shoot right now, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

The stars aligned for Alabama when both K-State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday, and when Georgia botched a last-minute drive two weeks later. The defending champions actually get to defend their title, and could make it seven in a row from the nations best conference.

For Notre Dame, they get the opportunity to win the program's first title since 1988. But on a larger scale -- one the team probably doesn't care much about, but one that most everyone else around the sport does -- the Irish can stonewall the SEC's recent dominance atop college football, at least for one year.

Were very ecstatic about this challenge, running back Theo Riddick said. What else can I say, you want to beat the best. So we have that chance.

Dustin Johnson, Kevin Chappell tied for lead at Tour Championship

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Dustin Johnson, Kevin Chappell tied for lead at Tour Championship

ATLANTA (AP) — Dustin Johnson had a reasonable lie in the rough and only a few pine tree branches blocking his path to the 17th green. Neither seemed like a problem until he played the wrong shot, clipped the tree and wound up with a double bogey Saturday in the Tour Championship.

It was an example of how one hole can change everything at East Lake.

And it's why the final round of the PGA Tour season suddenly has more scenarios than Johnson cares to consider.

Johnson recovered with a birdie from the bunker on the par-5 18th for a 1-under 69, giving him a share of the lead with Kevin Chappell (68) going into the last round that will determine who wins the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup.

For the first time since 2009, there's a chance it might not be the same player.

"There's a lot of scenarios that could happen," Johnson said. "But yeah, I'm still going to go out and try to shoot as low a score as possible."

Johnson only has to win or finish second alone to claim the $10 million bonus as the FedEx Cup champion.

Rory McIlroy, who has gone 28 holes without a bogey at East Lake, had three birdies over his last six holes for a 66 and was two shots behind. If he were to win the Tour Championship and Johnson finished in a two-way tie for second or worse, McIlroy would claim the FedEx Cup.

"It would just be great to try to win the Tour Championship, and if the chips fall my way, then so be it," McIlroy said.

The winner of the Tour Championship has won the FedEx Cup every year since 2009, when Phil Mickelson won the tournament and Tiger Woods won the FedEx Cup.

Johnson led by as many as four shots when he ran off three straight birdies on the front nine, and he really didn't do much wrong to give up the size of that lead. He had a three-putt from 70 feet on No. 13, and missed the fairway by a few feet on the next hole, enough that his ball was buried so deep that even Johnson and his power couldn't advance more than about 135 yards.

It was the 17th hole that reshaped the tournament.

Johnson tried to played a fade from a flyer lie in the rough, and the ball came out high and hit a branch, leaving him in more rough about 60 yards short of the green. He put that in the bunker, blasted out to 6 feet and missed the putt to make double bogey.

Chappell rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt for a three-shot swing on the hole and suddenly had the lead, only for Johnson to catch him with the final birdie.

They were at 8-under 202.

Chappell, a runner-up three times this season who has never won on the PGA Tour, has made only one bogey in 54 holes this week, a show of consistency, discipline and a few good breaks when he does miss the fairway.

His next chance at a breakthrough victory is to face golf's best player at the moment (Johnson), with McIlroy and Ryan Moore (66) two shots behind.

"I've always kind of been the underdog, so it's a role I'm comfortable in," Chappell said.

Moore went out in 31 until he was slowed by a pair of bogeys, though very much in the mix just two shots out of the lead. The mystery is whether anything he does on Sunday - even if that means a victory - is enough for Davis Love III to use his last captain's pick on Moore for the Ryder Cup.

"I came here this week to win a golf tournament, and I'm 100 percent focused on that," Moore said, adding that the Ryder Cup is "completely out of my control."

And that's how the last day is shaping up for everyone - post a score and see where it leads.

Johnson, for a moment, looked as though he might take all the drama out of the season-ender when he made a 15-foot par putt early in his round and then ran off three straight birdies on the front nine to go four shots clear.

The putter cooled off, however, and Chappell stayed in range.

Chappell chipped in on No. 12 to match birdies and stay three shots behind, and then he quickly closed the gap when Johnson made back-to-back bogeys, only to respond with a 4-iron over the water to a peninsula green on the par-3 15th to 15 feet for birdie.

The 17th hole changed everything.

"I thought about just trying to hit it in the front bunker, which I probably should have done - probably would have made 4 if I'd have done that," Johnson said. "But it is what it is. I came back and birdied the last hole, tied for the lead going into tomorrow. I like my position."

And he doesn't need a degree in math to figure out the easiest scenario - just win.

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