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Can Notre Dame-Alabama challenge Texas-USC as highest-rated BCS title game?

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Two undefeated teams, three Heisman Trophy finalists, five lead changes and 19 seconds left when the winning touchdown was scored.

No other BCS title game has come close to matching that perfect formula for broad appeal. The 2006 tilt between Texas and Southern California was on in nearly 22 per cent of American homes with televisions; the second-best number is under 18 per cent.

Now, seven years later, a matchup may finally challenge that Rose Bowl's TV ratings record.

No. 1 Notre Dame, so popular it can stay independent and negotiate its own television contract, is competing for its first championship since the 1988 season. Notre Dame's opponent, No. 2 Alabama, is a big name in its own right, made bigger by two titles in the last three years and the Southeastern Conference's run of six straight crowns.

"It sets up really remarkable possibilities," said Burke Magnus, ESPN's senior vice-president for college sports programming.

Just as fans and media break down position-by-position battles for the Fighting Irish and Crimson Tide, a look at how this year's matchup stacks up against the record-holders from 2006:

— NAME RECOGNITION. Texas and USC are hardly slouches in the tradition and popularity departments, but Notre Dame is in its own category. Plus there's the added intrigue of the Irish's title drought.

"It definitely raises the bar of the hype and the buzz of this national championship compared to any of the other games I've had the good fortune to call," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.

Even if much of the interest sprouts from fans rooting against one of the teams.

"Notre Dame is the Yankees, is the Celtics, the Lakers and so on, the Dallas Cowboys. They're polarizing, which helps," Magnus said. "Actually, both of them are right now because of the SEC factor, and Alabama has been the standard bearer for that."

Herbstreit chuckled at the thought of some fans vowing not to watch because they detest both teams.

"Anybody who takes the time to make a comment like that clearly will be watching the game," he said. "They'll in fact watch the four hours of pregame we have before the game and be blogging and tweeting about how wrong everybody is on those shows."

— STAR POWER. Texas-USC sparkled far brighter here. The three Heisman finalists that season were from those two teams: Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart (who won the previous year) and running back Reggie Bush (who won this time, before later returning the trophy because of NCAA violations) and Longhorns quarterback Vince Young. All were skill position players believed at the time to have promising NFL futures.

Notre Dame's Heisman finalist is a defensive guy, linebacker Manti Te'o. Alabama's four first-team All-Americans are offensive linemen or defenders.

— ANTICIPATION. Texas and USC were the undisputed top teams in college football — the only undefeated squads in the country who led the rankings all season. Alabama has one loss, and while there has been almost no controversy as to whether the Tide deserves to play in the title game, the late-season rankings scramble that led to this game doesn't carry quite the same buzz.

— MARKET SIZE. In the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, post-season viewership often varies significantly based on whether the teams involved hail from cities big or small. In college football, that's less of a factor, though it didn't hurt the 2006 title game that a school from Los Angeles, the country's second-largest market, was involved.

The program from South Bend, Ind., of course is a classic example of national appeal.

"(Alabama is) the franchise right now and another mega brand," Magnus said. "It doesn't matter that it's Tuscaloosa — the TV markets don't matter when it comes to teams like that."

— ON-FIELD THEATER. One of the biggest factors in the final rating won't be known until the game kicks off. If the score stays close, more viewers will stick around to the end — and more will join in. Magnus believes the rise of social media will increase the audience of tight games even more than in the past, as casual fans learn through Twitter or Facebook that they can catch a tense finish if they tune in.

The Longhorns' 41-38 win featured 10 touchdowns, and the teams combined to score five times in the fourth quarter. Neither school ever led by more than 12 points.

Notre Dame has had a penchant for close games all season and Alabama also has lately. But the other half of the entertainment equation — high scoring — may be less likely with these two programs. Each allows fewer than 11 points a game.

— RAW NUMBERS. The Texas-USC title game set the record with a 21.7 rating — 22 per cent higher than the next best BCS championship. No. 2 all-time was the 2001 Oklahoma-Florida State final with a 17.8. The best ratings since 2006 were a 17.4 for both the 2007 Florida-Ohio State and 2008 LSU-Ohio State matchups.

The 2006 championship was on ABC, but the BCS games have since moved to cable. ESPN is in about 14 per cent fewer homes than the traditional broadcast networks, though executives note that college football fans are more likely than the general population to have cable. Ratings since the switch have seemingly been more affected by the matchups and competitiveness of games than by their availability.

Regular-season viewership, while still strong, was down for college football this year. On ESPN's networks, the average audience decreased more than 10 per cent on ABC, almost 4 per cent on ESPN, and nearly 13 per cent on ESPN2 from 2011. SEC games on CBS also dropped 10 per cent.

For the four BCS games so far, preliminary ratings are up 1 per cent on ESPN from last season.

But Notre Dame and Alabama have already shown their ability to lure big audiences. The rating for the Tide's SEC title game against Georgia — essentially a national semifinal — was up 34 per cent from the previous year's LSU-Georgia matchup. With an average of 16.2 million viewers, it was the season's most-watched college football game before the bowls.

No. 2 was Notre Dame's win over USC to clinch a berth in the BCS title game with 16.1 million viewers. That was the highest-rated Saturday night regular-season game on ABC since at least 1991.

Herbstreit is one of those sports fans who watch golf only when Tiger Woods is in contention on a Sunday. He considers Notre Dame-Alabama to be the college football equivalent of that.

"Without a doubt," he said, "if you're a college football fan, or even if you're a fringe college football fan, you're going to watch."

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