Waking up Sunday morning, I was in shock.
A much-needed postgame nap had turned into a 14-hour night of sleep, and what I was reading on my Twitter feed didn’t make sense. Notre Dame was No. 1?
Only a few moments after, it hit me. No. 6 Kansas State and No. 5 Oregon, which had previously been No. 1 and No. 2, blew it.
Actually, it was just Oregon who destroyed its chance to play in the national championship game, losing 17-14 in overtime to No. 8 Stanford. The Wildcats, on the other hand, got destroyed. Baylor had previously won a single Big 12 game this season, against Kansas — which has not managed success since Week 1 — yet they embarrassed the No. 1 team in the nation with a 52-24 victory.
And so there is one. A single undefeated team after Week 12 controls its own road to Miami Jan. 7. That team is Notre Dame.
There is no way to deny the Fighting Irish are back now. What better way to silence season-long critics than to be able to boast the customary “#1” sign for the first time, for football, since 1993 atop Grace Hall.
The tradition started back in 1973 after the school’s championship season. A program with one of the richest histories in all of college football has been in a slump of underperformance since 1993.
I thought this team was going to defy the odds against it with what was considered one of the toughest schedules in all of college football, but I did not expect it to make it to Week 13 without a blemish.
Now just a single victory away from a berth in the BCS National Championship Game, a closer look at the team’s path shows much more than just the luck of the Irish.
Any discussion so much as mentioning the words Irish and defense should not start without this name. The senior linebacker closed out his career in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday with six tackles against Wake Forest and a zero next to his opponent’s name.
What makes him is his consistency. By Te’o’s own statistics, Saturday’s performance was subpar. The Heisman contender has put up double-digit tackle totals in six of 11 games this season, topping out at 12, with seven solo tackles, against Michigan State in Week 3.
He is backed by his teammates on defense, which as a unit averages just more than ten points allowed per game, the best in the league to date.
Te’o has the picture perfect stage to prove he is deserving of the top award. Come Saturday against USC, you can bet he will be firing on all cylinders to keep his team, and his dreams, alive.
Ability to Win
Head coach Brian Kelly has created a team that can rise to the occasion and win games under pressure. It was not the prettiest of paths leading up to this final-week showdown against the Trojans. Luck may have been on the team’s side against Pittsburgh. However, Notre Dame has consistently found a way to win when tested, which is what separates it from No. 2 Alabama, Oregon, Kansas State and the rest of the field.
What these three teams have in common is offensive power.
I know what you’re thinking: Alabama prides itself on defense. Yet who was it that got the Tide out of the near-loss to No. 7 LSU two weeks ago? The Crimson offense, after the so highly-praised defense gave up 14 points and the lead in the second half. And against No. 9 Texas A&M, this same group gave up 20 points in the first quarter.
Notre Dame’s offensive unit isn’t spectacular, but it is good enough to make up the few points the team gives up, and in the end that is really all that matters.
Oregon has made headlines with its offensive dismantling of opponents this season, but Saturday against Stanford, the Ducks put up just 14 points, which, might I remind you, is six fewer points than Notre Dame’s offense accumulated against the Cardinals in Week 7.
This brings me to my final point as to why the Fighting Irish are the sole undefeated team looking for a title. They still have a big game to play.
Big Competition Still Remains
Saturday, I argue, is the biggest game of the season for both Notre Dame and USC. It was slated as a late matchup that intrigued many fans, and I am pleased to say despite the ups and downs of this season, that speculation still holds true.
The Trojans may have already suffered four surprising losses this season. This is the team many thought would be where the Irish are standing now when play began in September. USC’s BCS hopes were crushed a long time ago, so you better believe they will be ready to pounce at the opportunity to have an impact on the title game in a different way: thrashing Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish have proven they deserve the No. 1 spot thus far, but unlike the former No. 1 placeholders, their biggest game is still not in the record book.
Alabama and Kansas State have their toughest matchup slated for their regular season in their rear-view mirror. Oregon, which was No. 1 in the AP poll, still faces an always difficult Civil War with Oregon State this weekend as well, but its competition with USC and Stanford within the past three weekends should have been the most difficult task.
Notre Dame is granted the fortune of seeing USC quarterback Matt Barkley without a helmet on, after a shoulder injury this past weekend will keep him out of the game. This increases the odds of a 12-0 Notre Dame season two-fold, but with a new quarterback comes the unknown.
The chances are slim this will pose serious problem for Te’o and the Notre Dame defense, who would love nothing more than to intercept a pass or two from the rookie.
But these past two weeks of football remind us that nothing in this game is ever a guarantee.