Notre Dame entered the college football season unranked in the AP polls and, as far as the national title race goes, pretty much irrelevant. Notre Dame football will never be extraneous due to its gigantic fan base and equally gigantic group of hating fans, but, prior to this season, only Lou Holtz and the Notre Dame players themselves gave the Irish a chance of being in the national championship picture. (Quite frankly, the Irish players may not even have believed it. Sweet Lou may have been on his own with that 12-0 prediction.)
Almost every obstacle stood in the way of Our Mother. From the graduation of Michael Floyd, the school’s leader in receptions, to the nation’s toughest schedule in the preseason, to the major question mark at the quarterback position, all the way down to the substantially bigger question mark in the secondary came—all of these factors came together to form a collective stink cloud over the Irish program. Throw in Brian Kelly’s relatively unimpressive first two years at Notre Dame and the constant (yet ultimately irrelevant) chatter about a conference-less Notre Dame’s future in the BCS and you have the makings of a disastrous season.
Fast forward three months. Notre Dame is now the only relevant college football team yet to lose a game. It’s the No. 1 team in the country in the for the first time in nearly 20 years. It is one win away from qualifying for the National Championship game.
How the Irish climbed the BCS ladder from unranked to No. 1 will not shock the public. The masses won’t look back at Notre Dame’s body of work and see a flashy, thrilling, sexy style of football that excites the crowd. Unless it plays Navy or Wake Forest, you probably will not see a number over 28 next to the ND sign on the scoreboard. Unlike their counterparts of Oregon and Kansas State, the Irish fail to score massive sums of points to outshoot their opponents. What they do bring to the table, however, is defense. Arguably the best one in the nation.
Notre Dame, which is No. 1 in the nation in points allowed per game, prides itself on smash mouth football. In the last 93 drives where an opposing team has started inside it’s own 40 yard line, the Irish have allowed one—yes, ONE—touchdown. Do you understand how incredible that stat is? They’ve allowed less than one touchdown per game in 2012 and lead the NCAA in opponent points per game, opponent’s red zone scores per game, opponent offensive touchdowns per game, and a number of other defensive categories.
Yet this Notre Dame team never got votes from the coaches or the AP polls because it didn’t pass the eye test.
Every season we rave on and on about the SEC’s great defensive teams and how its athletes stand so far above the rest of the country. We talk about how no one from any other conference should even try to score on the mighty Alabama defense and how anyone who thinks they can score in the 20s against LSU needs a reality check. In most years, those defenses go through the season untested are those SEC teams are allowed to waltz into the national championship game. Explain to me why Notre Dame is held to a different standard? (CBS‘s Dennis Dodd wrote a great column about where he expanded on this point.)
Notre Dame, as stated above, statistically, has the best defense in America. They have a Heisman finalist in Manti Te’o (We’ve all heard his absolutely remarkable story by now. If you haven’t, get out from underneath the rock you live in, close my article, and go Google him.) anchoring their defensive surge and a budding top ten pick in Stephon Tuitt. (Watch the play below if you aren’t familiar with him. He’s 6’6, 300 pounds and, in that play, picks up a fumble and outruns the opposing team’s running back for a 77-yard touchdown.) Defensive tackle Louis Nix should also be a first or second round pick when he decides to come out, giving the Irish three bona-fide stars in their front seven. Why then does the conversation switch over to the Irish not passing the eye test and not scoring enough points? Since when has the nation looked at the most prolific offenses when deciding who gets to play in the National Championship? If offense was the deciding factor, Oregon would have a 12 week bye into the National Championship game every season.
Notre Dame built its team in a way that allows it to stay competitive in every single game. Its improving offense has been the X-Factor this season, and Everett Golson deserves almost all of that praise (along with All-American tight end Tyler Eifert). But its bread and butter comes from stopping opponents, and, through 11 games, no one offense has been able to move the ball against the Irish defense. Like it or not, Kansas State, Oregon and Alabama all have fallen (Kansas State’s fall was from the top of the Grand Canyon; the other two were from off the side of a two story building.)
All of this talk will come to a screeching halt if the Irish drop the ball in Troy on Saturday. If the Irish walk into Southern California with a sense of entitlement about their No. 1 ranking, they will come out of Los Angeles with a big uno next to the dash on their record. No team in America is good enough to waltz into USC with a cocky stroll and upend the Trojans,Matt Barkley or no Matt Barkley. I don’t care if the Trojans are self imploding. I don’t care that they there AD just held a press conference and told the fans that Lane Kiffin is not getting fired, by far the biggest tell-tale sign of program being in trouble. The Trojans still have the best wide receiver tandem in the nation and are littered with Five-Star Players from top to bottom. The Irish need to play the way they’ve played all season long in order to come out with a win. They need to play their infamous “bend but don’t break” style of football that makes Irish fans across the world want to pull out their frickin hair each and every week.
Like it or not, the Irish won’t excite the crap out of you with their prolific offense and their high-flying aerial attack. Like it or not, the Irish did all that anyone can expect of a team and did what no other bowl-eligible team in the nation has done: Win every game on their schedule. And like it or not, the Irish are 60 minutes away from earning a spot in the BCS National Championship. Will they win two more games and be crowned the nation’s best team? Only time will tell. However, any Irish fan must smile at the fact that no one, and I mean absolutely not one person on the planet, can argue with the fact that Notre Dame is once again relevant. And from the looks of where the team is headed, this relevancy should lass a long, long time.
Dave Spahn is a contrubting Notre Dame blogger for TDdaily. Follow him on Twitter @DaveSpahn.