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Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Irish finally race beyond hype into title territory

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In his third year at the helm of Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has the Irish where fans want them. (US Presswire)  
In his third year at the helm of Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has the Irish where fans want them. (US Presswire)  

It seems just about every year Notre Dame's expectations both from their die-hard fans and those of us in the media have been overinflated. Much of it in recent years had to do with all of those former four- and five-star recruits who, well, usually looked like three-star players. Not this year though.

In the summer, the Fighting Irish were pegged, at best, as a fringe Top 25 team. They had QB issues. Tommy Rees, the starter, had been mediocre and was in limbo due to an offseason arrest. Everett Golson, the kid who most close to the program were excited about, was still only a redshirt freshman. The ND secondary was depleted. The schedule looked rough, the most imposing slate in the country. And, entering Year Three of the Brian Kelly regime, some of the luster had faded on the coach who had gone 16-10 in South Bend. Plus, it had been since 2006 that the Irish even had a team finish in the Top 25 (No. 20 in the coaches poll). Hardly, the kind of stuff that fuels BCS dreams. Of course, all of this only fed into the delusional notion that Notre Dame football was not relevant.

(As we've explained several times, Notre Dame's relevant because the power brokers who run the sport -- the TV execs and the conference commissioners -- deem them so. The fact that you may resent them and all the coverage they get wouldn't matter. But it does, because those feelings only make ND more polarizing and more intriguing, and thus more of a ratings draw, unlike any other college football brand. So, the sport's power brokers all bend over backwards to please the Irish, making special rules and exceptions for them.)

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Anyhow, I doubt Lou Holtz actually believed that two months into the 2012 season, Notre Dame would sit here at 8-0, fresh off a dominant win in Oklahoma, in the middle of the BCS title chase. But that is the reality. It's now time to stop lamenting what the Irish supposedly don't have and talk about what they do have.

Toughness. Grit. Discipline. Talent. Confidence. The intangibles.

In the summer before Kelly's first season at Notre Dame, I visited him in South Bend for a magazine feature. He raised an interesting point about how the Irish program needed to make a virtue of what it was. I'd asked him if his approach might be different if he were taking over at OU or Wisconsin.

"Totally different answer," he said. "But it's not Wisconsin. It's Notre Dame. So the environment here on a day-to-day basis is different. I'm not saying it's better; it's not worse. Some people say special. That's fine. It's on campus. It's living in the dorms. It's 17 chapels on campus. Therefore, you have to be invested in that. We didn't understand how those principles really affected us when we went to work every day."

I still didn't quite grasp the correlation of the spirit of ND life and how it could translate to getting the Irish back in the Top 15, so I asked Kelly more questions about this notion.

"How does Navy beat some of the teams that they beat?" he asked. "They beat them on the character that they have, their discipline, their attention to detail, their love for their country, the passion in the way that they play. Notre Dame has a lot of those trappings. We just have to be able to play on those. It can't be just 'I'm going to recruit a bunch of four- and five-star star guys and roll the ball out.' College football doesn't play that way. We have to be able to get our players playing with a sense of pride and a sense of ownership in Notre Dame. That's what we're working on right now."

Sure looks like in Year Three Kelly has developed that, and that conversation we had in his office came back to me as I watched ND take back control of that game in hostile territory late Saturday night.

Landry Jones had an impressive stat line, going 35 of 51 for 356 yards, but the Irish bottled up the Sooners in the red zone, forcing field goals and keeping them out of the end zone. Stuff like that torpedoes momentum. Better still, the Irish proved to be the more physical team, owning the line of scrimmage with a 215-15 rushing edge. Not bad for an 11.5-point underdog.

Their young QB blossomed right in front of the country's eyes after OU finally scored a TD to tie the game early in the fourth quarter at 13-13. The Sooners TD came via the ground, the first the Irish had allowed all season. Maybe that was some kind of statement, no? As if, the Irish were being forced back to the real world.

Only on ND's next series, Kelly and his freshman QB came out firing. Golson connected on his next four passes, including a picturesque 50-yard deep ball to Chris Brown to lead the Irish all the way to the OU 1-yard-line. Golson punctuated the drive with a one-yard run, and then the Irish really got tough on the Sooners.

"He's growing up ...," Kelly said of Golson. "You could sense that he was leading. He was communicating. He was talking. He was confident. He was calm, all the things you need to see from your quarterback when you're on the road."

This is exactly the kind of thing that it sounded like Kelly saw in Golson coming into the season: A play-making knack that kept surfacing. And also an arm that's been a lot stronger than Joe Montana thought it was.

Following the go-ahead TD drive, Manti Te'o who had been the best player on the field, made a diving interception on a third-and-3 that led to a game-sealing field goal. It was Te'o's fifth pick of the season. And now the thought of a defensive player winning the Heisman Trophy doesn't seem so far-fetched.

I realize that it's still Collin Klein's Heisman to lose, but make no mistake, Te'o is right behind him. Just like Alabama's the big favorite, but who would've thought ND would beat OU in Norman or be 8-0 for the first time since Ty Willingham's debut season in South Bend? Probably the only ones were the guys in Brian Kelly's locker room.

"For us, we knew what we could do," said Te'o. "Today is no surprise."

Notre Dame has proven to have a big-time defense for the first time in a generation. That, more than anything, is driving this great season in South Bend, and it all starts with Te'o. The Sooners became the sixth team ND has faced who were held to a season-low in points courtesy of the Irish.

The last time a defensive player had a legit shot to win the Heisman was in 2009 when Ndamukong Suh was terrorizing offenses. Suh was the most disruptive defensive player I've seen in college in the past decade. Obviously, even Suh didn't win it. (Mark Ingram did.) But keep in mind, Suh's team went 9-4 (before winning a bowl game). The Huskers weren't in the BCS title mix. Te'o's team is. Also, many of the more detached Heisman voters less likely to recognize a defensive tackle are many of the same Heisman voters who remember the glory days of Notre Dame and are wired into that program more than any other.

The schedule for the Irish now suddenly doesn't seem so daunting. None of their next three opponents -- Pitt, BC and Wake Forest -- has a winning record. Get past them and all that remains is a Nov. 24 visit to arch-rival USC, a team that just lost to Arizona and whose season has been a dud. Meanwhile, now's the time when two of the other top unbeatens: Alabama and Oregon have the heftiest parts of their schedules coming up.

Could the Irish, a team that the experts in Vegas said would be fortunate to win more than eight games this season, really be closing in on a BCS title game slot? It's starting to seem plausible. Regardless, one thing we can say for sure, not even the biggest Notre Dame haters can try to claim the Irish aren't relevant any more.

"I think we're on our way," said Te'o, "but we still have a lot more work to do."

Random Stuff

 Saddest scene of the weekend in sports was seeing the gruesome injury suffered by South Carolina star Marcus Lattimore against Tennessee. The big running back had battled back from a major knee injury last year, only to go down again. This time in a horrific manner. As the college football world was jolted by the sight of what happened to Lattimore, touching notes filtered in from around the country about how much respect the Gamecock has from guys ranging from Te'o to LSU star Sam Montgomery (a South Carolina native) to Johnny Manziel. Many of the tweets talked about Lattimore's character, like how he often sent uplifting messages of support to other players who were coping with major injuries as he did after Georgia WR Michael Bennett a few weeks ago.

"Everybody in the SEC and around the country has the utmost respect for Marcus Lattimore, mainly, as a person," Steve Spurrier said. "We all know he's a great guy. As a person, there's no greater than him that I've ever met. It was touching. The Tennessee guys felt bad about it too. Us coaches all say let's hope nobody gets hurt today before the game. That's what I say before every game. We're all on the same page. It's a terrible part of the game that sometimes injuries occur, but players don't try to hurt other players in our league."

 Alabama blows out an undefeated SEC team ranked No. 11, hammering them 38-7, and yet still falls from No. 3 to No. 7 in the Sagarin ratings, as Jon Solomon points out. That comes from something called the Elo-Chess part of Sagarin. I don't know what it is or how it works. Maybe Dodd or Jerry Palm can explain it. All I know is Bama's one spot below Georgia and West Virginia ranks No. 14 in that thing. Texas is No. 17. Reason enough to invalidate that system.

 While looking around to see exactly what the over/under was for the Notre Dame win total was going into the season, I looked for Kansas State's. It was 7.5. That was the same as Auburn's.

Speaking of the Tigers' sinking ship, with each crushing loss, it seems more and more like a reality that Gene Chizik, not even two years from winning a BCS title, isn't going to be brought back for 2013. The Tigers were destroyed by SEC newcomer Texas A&M, who piled up over 600 yards of offense. In six SEC games this season, the Tigers have yet to score more than 20 points. In the BCS title season of 2010, Auburn was only held below 20 once in 14 games (a 17-14 win at Miss. State).

 As dominant as Notre Dame's front seven is, imagine how much scarier the Irish would be if 6-6, 270-pound DE Aaron Lynch opted to stay in South Bend. Lynch was the best D-linemen they had and has top-10 pick potential. By the way, the program Lynch left for, USF, is 1-10 in Big East play and is the nation's worst at stopping teams on fourth downs (6-7).

 Rich Rodriguez is again looking like one of the best coaches in football. Kinda like the days in Morgantown. Arizona now has the inside track to win the Pac-12 South division title, not the team that was voted as the preseason No. 1 in the country, USC. (More on the Trojans in a few minutes.)

 No shocker Oregon blew Colorado out early. The Ducks had a 28-0 lead by the end of the opening quarter. That's become a typical theme for Chip Kelly's bunch. Oregon's outscored its last three opponents by a 71-7 mark in the first quarter alone.

 Earlier in the week, Georgia safety Shawn Williams called out his teammates for the Dawgs underachieving, soft defense. Williams set the tone early by making a huge play and his teammates followed suit, holding Florida without a TD for the first time in 24 years and forcing six turnovers. Jarvis Jones stepped up in spectacular fashion too, with a career-best 13 tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

 As I watched Texas celebrate its last-second rally to beat Kansas, I kept wondering how exactly were the Longhorns ranked No. 23 in the country in the first place? The closest things they'd done to statement wins were over Oklahoma State and Ole Miss. They'd also got beat by 42 by arch-rival OU and were the last team to lose to West Virginia. I realize there will be other two-loss teams in the Top 25 at this point of the season, but as awful as they've been on defense and as bad as they looked on offense Saturday against a dreadful Jayhawks team, they don't need to be in the Top 25 for awhile.

 Whatever respect Lane Kiffin built up last season for guiding the Trojans to a 10-2 record has been whittled away. Kiffin's antics during the season are head-scratching, making things often seem to be a lot harder than they need to be. The Trojans made a month's worth of mistakes in the Desert on Saturday afternoon. This team seems to flop any time it's faced with pressure, and that all goes back to the head coach.

Going into the season there was a lot of talk about a certain USC player potentially being the first pick in the draft. After two months of the season, it's clear the Trojans best player is sophomore WR Marqise Lee, not Matt Barkley. Despite the presence of Lee and Robert Woods, the senior QB has had such a shaky 2012 and more mistakes became his and the Trojans undoing in the desert. Barkley has now thrown eight INTs, one more than he had all of last season despite throwing almost 200 fewer passes. And USC still has zero wins over teams with winning records in 2012.

 After Collin Klein, Manti Te'o and AJ McCarron, it's been a struggle to find other guys to include in these extended Heisman Watches. UNC's Giovani Bernard has almost no shot to win it but the guy definitely deserves to be talked about on the national stage. He has become a favorite on our Inside College Football set on CBS Sports Network, but I need to give him a plug here. Carolina is 6-3, but two of those losses came in games Bernard missed. In the other loss, at Duke, Bernard had over 200 yards from scrimmage. On Saturday, Bernard bailed UNC out with a great punt return in the final minute to go along with 135 rushing yards and 95 more receiving. Stud.

 My Heisman Top Three: 1. Klein. 2. Te'o. 3. AJ McCarron over Bernard.

 Most inconsistent team in the country: Washington, which knocked off previously unbeaten Oregon State and earlier in the season gave Stanford its first loss. That gives Steve Sarkisian two wins over top-10 teams. The bad news: this is the same U-Dub squad that has also lost three games by 30-plus points.

 Stat of the Day: Last season in the Big 12, Texas A&M averaged 39 ppg and 485 yards of offense. This season, in the Aggies' debut season in the SEC, they're averaging 46 ppg and 546 yards of offense, both tops in the SEC. Kevin Sumlin was a great hire for the Aggies.

 Stat of the Day, Take 2: The teams in the top five in turnover margin are a combined 37-3.

 Stat of the Day, Take 3: Five of the nation's top six defenses are either teams Nick Saban coaches, coached at or are run by Saban proteges. BYU, ranked No. 4 in total defense, is the exception. The Cougars rank behind Alabama, FSU and LSU and are ahead of Michigan State and Florida.

 It's been quite a 180 in the state of Mississippi. The Ole Miss Rebels won at Arkansas to go to 5-3 and have a decent shot at making a bowl in Hugh Freeze's first season. Last year, Ole Miss had its worst season, finishing 2-10. Further south, the debut season for Ellis Johnson keeps getting uglier. A USM program that won the Conference USA title and finished 12-2 is the only full FBS member that is still without a victory. USM dropped to 0-8 after getting blown out by 27 points against a Rice team that was 2-6 and winless in league play.

 Updating my D3 blog about mighty Mount Union, which had been outscoring folks by an average of 55-1 and had a stretch of 24 consecutive quarters without allowing a point: The Purple Raiders kept winning, but were scored on by No. 14 Heidelberg in the first quarter in a 33-14 Mount win. The scoreless streak had gone for 377 minutes and 27 seconds.

 D3 also provided us with the craziest box score of the weekend: Hardin-Simmons beat Sul Ross 86-42; the teams combined for 1,714 yards.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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