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.

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Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks host Lightning tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Blackhawks.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Grab the first goal.

The Blackhawks have scored the game's first goal in seven of the last eight games, and of those seven, they've won six of them. Meanwhile, the Lightning have scored the first goal only 17 times in 48 games this season, and are 12-5-1 in those games. They're 9-17-4 when they allow the first goal, so getting out to a lead first will be important against a struggling Lightning team looking for signs of life.

2. Will the floodgates open for Jonathan Toews?

After a four-point game in a 4-2 win over Vancouver, the Blackhawks captain matched his point total over his previous nine games. He's up to 26 points on the season, which is now fifth among Chicago forwards. When Toews has offensive droughts, they usually last longer than they should. But when he gets hot, he gets extremely hot. Perhaps we'll see the floodgates open offensively.

3. A chance for the team lead in scoring.

With an empty-net goal on Sunday, Marian Hossa tied Artem Anisimov for the team-lead with 18 goals. Artemi Panarin is right behind with 17, and Patrick Kane isn't far either at 15. The Blackhawks had four 20-goal scorers last season, and haven't had more than that since the 2013-14 season. They're definitely on pace to hit four, but could they surprass that? Richard Panik, who scored another goal Sunday as well, is fifth with 11 goals while Ryan Hartman has 10. Toews is at eight, but a flurry after a drought could make things interesting.

4. The triplets reunited?

In an effort to jumpstart a struggling offense, Lightning coach Jon Cooper reunited the triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat that was so successful during their 2015 playoff run in their latest game, a 5-3 loss to Arizona. It's unclear whether they will begin tonight's game on the same line, but if not, it's worth watching throughout the game whether they do. The Blackhawks have been coming at opponents in waves lately, so Cooper could look to separate the three to distribute the scoring.

5. Take advantage on special teams.

The Lightning have racked up the fifth-most penalty minutes in the league, and own a bottom-10 penalty kill unit at 80.1 percent. The Blackhawks are the second-least penalized team, and have converted on 17.9 percent of their power plays, which sits at 16th. But they haven't scored one on the man advantage in five straight games, going 0-for-9 during that span. Here's a chance to change that.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

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