"To be honest, I think this team has kind of exceeded expectations," Saban said Sunday. "If you look at all the players we lost last year, the leadership that we lost ... I'm really proud of what this team was able to accomplish."
That said, it's not a huge surprise to find Alabama playing for another title. That's not the case when it comes to Notre Dame.
Despite their impressive legacy, the Fighting Irish (12-0) weren't even ranked at the start of the season. But overtime wins against Stanford and Pittsburgh, combined with three other victories by a touchdown or less, gave Notre Dame a shot at its first national title since 1988.
After so many lost years, the golden dome has reclaimed its luster in coach Brian Kelly's third season.
This is the beginning, he said.
"Playing in this game is an incredible springboard into the next season," Kelly said. "They've already been here. You come back the next year, it's unacceptable for a standard to be any less than being back here again."
Both Notre Dame and Alabama have won eight Associated Press national titles, more than any other school. They are the bluest of the blue bloods, the programs that have long set the bar for everyone else even while enduring some droughts along the way.
Kelly molded Notre Dame using largely the same formula that has worked so well for Saban in Tuscaloosa: a bruising running game and a stout defense, led by Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o.
"It's a little bit old fashioned in the sense that this is about the big fellows up front," Kelly said. "It's not about the crazy receiving numbers or passing yards or rushing yards. This is about the big fellas, and this game will unquestionably be decided up front."