Stanford, Calif. • Even though his parents and younger sister showed up for Stanford's game at Notre Dame last year, Cardinal cornerback Alex Carter never felt his team had the full support of his family.
His father wore a Fighting Irish jersey and smiled after the home team's overtime victory.
"There's like some unspoken trash talk," said Carter, whose father, Tom, played cornerback at Notre Dame before being drafted 17th overall by the Washington Redskins in 1993.
In a rivalry between resurgent programs with strong academics and proud traditions, Carter is hardly the only one with ties to the opposing school.
There are all kinds of connections linking current players, coaches and administrators along with a physical style on the field and a competitive spirit in the classroom that create a scintillating subplot to Saturday's regular-season finale between the eighth-ranked Cardinal (9-2) and No. 25 Notre Dame (8-3) at Stanford Stadium.
"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Unlike last year in South Bend, both teams are already out of the national championship picture.
Stanford can clinch a fourth straight BCS bowl by beating No. 13 Arizona State in the Pac-12 championship game next week to book a return trip to the Rose Bowl. Notre Dame, with three losses, has no chance of making a BCS bowl and can improve its postseason destination only slightly.
Of course, pride is all anybody involved in this series needs for motivation.
"It's a fun game because you have the connections, family connections, and we all want to win it," said Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who might have more bragging rights riding on the outcome than any player.
Hogan is the nephew of former Fighting Irish quarterback Coley O'Brien and tackle Ivan Brown. His father and sister attended Notre Dame, and he estimates between 10 and 20 cousins and about five or six aunts and uncles hold Notre Dame degrees.
"I just know there's a bunch," said Hogan, who grew up an Irish fan, attended dozens of Notre Dame games but never received an offer from the school.
Stanford right guard Kevin Danser's uncle, John Gallagher, played basketball for the Irish and roomed with quarterback Joe Theismann as a freshman. Backup center Conor McFadden has about eight family members who attended Notre Dame. And Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir worked in Notre Dame's athletic department from 2000-05.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick received his bachelor's degree in economics in South Bend before graduating from Stanford's law school. Tyrone Willingham coached at both schools. And former Secretary of State and current Stanford professor Condoleezza Rice, a member of the playoff selection committee that begins next season, earned her master's degree in political science from Notre Dame.
Numerous players attended the same high school, grew up in the same city and were recruited by both schools which target top-tier talent who can qualify under some of the country's strictest academic standards.
Notre Dame wide receiver and captain TJ Jones and linebacker Doug Randolph originally committed to Stanford. The Cardinal lured linebacker Blake Lueders away from Notre Dame. The Irish also offered Carter a scholarship, but he said it came late in his recruiting process, and he preferred the more mild temperatures in Northern California anyway.
Spurning his father's college, though, makes this week a tricky one. Carter said his father will wear a Stanford jersey this Saturday, though what team he roots for remains in question.
"He hasn't really said anything to me," Carter said. "But come Saturday, it's going to be on."
Academics tie the schools together perhaps more than anything.
Notre Dame's 20-13 overtime victory against Stanford last year marked the first meeting between schools ranked in the top 20 of The Associated Press college football poll and U.S. News & World Report's list of best colleges. Both schools remain ranked highly in the academic report again, with Stanford tied for fifth and Notre Dame 18th.
While Kelly and Stanford coach David Shaw downplayed the recruiting battles between the schools, the series is critical for both to reach players.
The alternating home games allow each a chance to play more than 2,000 miles away every other year. That gives recruits an up-close look, families of current players from the area an opportunity to attend a game and coaches a chance to make distant visits during the season.
The teams first met at the 1925 Rose Bowl, when Knute Rockne and the "Four Horsemen" led Notre Dame to a 27-10 victory over Stanford. The programs have played all but two seasons since 1988 and plan to keep the series going.
"I think it's great for us. I think it's great for Notre Dame," Shaw said. "I think it's great for college football."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP