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Notre Dame

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Irish, Tide can be tough to embrace

– The pub is called the Blue Leprechaun – and the name pretty much says it all.

Notre Dame isn’t too popular along this strip of bars and restaurants within walking distance of Michigan Stadium, and at this lively establishment, a couple leprechaun heads wearing Wolverine-colored hats smile out at the street from an exterior awning.

Ryan Gardner works inside, and like almost everyone in town, he’s a Michigan fan. So it was a touch startling to hear him declare his allegiance – such as it is – for the BCS championship game.

“I would like to see Notre Dame win,” he said.

The 26-year-old Gardner wasn’t exactly humming the “Notre Dame Victory March” while sizing up this Jan. 7 title tilt between two teams that defeated his Wolverines this season. He is one of many fans across the country reflecting on a question with no easy answer, trying to choose between Notre Dame and Alabama, two of the most successful – and most resented – programs in college football.

So whom does America dislike more, the Irish or the Crimson Tide? For unattached observers from Michigan to Texas, that’s shaping up to be one tough call.

“I don’t like Alabama more than I don’t like Notre Dame,” Gardner said.

Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since 1988, and the Irish were largely irrelevant for two decades before coach Brian Kelly’s team strung together a dozen victories this season to earn a spot opposite Alabama in the title game. Now, comparisons with the Yankees, Lakers and every other polarizing sports sensation seem appropriate again.

A victory over Notre Dame would give the second-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1) a third national championship in four seasons. You can practically hear the “S-E-C!” chant already.

“The question is, who are you less sick of?” said David Bazzel, who played at Arkansas during the 1980s and now hosts a radio show for KABZ of Little Rock. “The hatred of Notre Dame. ... If you don’t have that hatred of Alabama as much, it’s that we’re tired of them winning.”

Elsewhere, SEC fatigue is a very real phenomenon – and Notre Dame’s recent floundering may have insulated the Irish a bit from similar envy.

“Notre Dame is obnoxious for all the reasons that Notre Dame is obnoxious, but they’ve been down for so long,” said Peter Bean, a 2003 Texas graduate who runs the blog Burnt Orange Nation.

“It’s been 15 years of schadenfreude with the Irish, so it kind of feels like you’re throwing them a bone.”

Bean actually went to Notre Dame for law school, but he’s no Irish supporter. The question is whether Notre Dame’s return to glory – for years a sarcastic punch line but suddenly a legit possibility – would be as grating as another showcase of SEC dominance.

The Irish could be double-digit underdogs, making Notre Dame – gulp – a sentimental favorite?

“It’s kind of bizarre to be honest,” said Joe Hettler, a 2005 Notre Dame grad who hopes to attend the championship game. “I’ve been a fan since I was literally 6 years old. Nobody ever roots for us.”