Senior College Football Columnist

The Big Picture: Dissing Notre Dame 'doesn't matter;' Irish are legit

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Recruited by Charlie Weis, Te'o helped shape Notre Dame's defensive mindset this season. (Getty Images)  
Recruited by Charlie Weis, Te'o helped shape Notre Dame's defensive mindset this season. (Getty Images)  

Standing by the Notre Dame bench only moments after the Fighting Irish denied USC on four cracks from the 1-yard-line, the teeth of the ND defense sure looked, acted and sounded like any of the great SEC defenses that have sparked the staggering six BCS title run.

The visual: 340-pound Floridian Louis Nix, 306-pound Texan Kapron Lewis-Moore and 255-pound linebacker Manti Te'o not so subtly reminding their celebrating teammates the Fighting Irish still had more work to do before the party would begin, even though the group had just turned in a goal-line stand that will be added to the glorious ND historical highlight reel -- the first new entry to that collection in a generation.

Yeah, there was some verbiage on the Notre Dame sideline as the clock ticked down that might've made some ND PR people cringe, but make no mistake, the Irish are legit. No one is pushing them around.

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The Fighting Irish more than earned their spot in the BCS. SEC fans can speculate all they want about what they think ND might do against an SEC conference schedule. It doesn't matter. The Irish did the work. If you don't like or respect this team, that's your problem.

Oddsmakers in Vegas have already set the Irish as 9.5-point underdogs in a projected BCS title matchup against Alabama. As any ND fan will also tell you, the Irish were a bigger underdog in Norman earlier this season, and that turned out pretty well for Notre Dame, which whipped OU 30-13.

We still don't know who the Irish will face, but we do know this: Notre Dame will be the first school unranked in preseason AP poll to play in the BCS title game.

It all started with the buy-in that Brian Kelly got. Many of these guys, including Te'o and Lewis-Moore, were Charlie Weis recruits. It can be a tricky thing to meld old and new amid the tumult of a coaching transition. Don't think there weren't a lot of rocky moments at ND en route to today, with plenty of hurt feelings. There were numerous players who transferred and are finishing their college careers elsewhere this season. But Kelly knows what he's doing. The guy had won big at every level of coaching when he arrived in South Bend.

Having spent some time with him months after he got the job, you came away thinking, "Well, if he can't get Notre Dame back to being a top-15 program, I'm not sure who can." But turning around a program is much easier said than done. Sound bites and clichés pasted on a wall or written on a guy's hand don't get it done. It takes so much more than that. Notre Dame, after all, for years has had celebrated recruiting classes that have only yielded an underwhelming product on the field.

Te'o said after the USC win Saturday night that Notre Dame's mentality this season is one of "it just doesn't matter." As in it doesn't matter whether the ball's at midfield or the ND 1-yard line, they're not letting you score.

"It doesn't matter what they do, it doesn't matter where the ball is," Te'o said. "If we do our job, if we play to the best of our ability, then it really doesn't matter."

That attitude also holds true off the field as well. It just doesn't matter -- as in whether the outside world is still skeptical about how good the Fighting Irish are. Just like it won't matter whether the so-called experts make the Fighting Irish a big underdog when they get matched against Alabama or Georgia in the BCS title game in January. If anything, this is the kind of thing that feeds on itself. It becomes part of a team's identity, Lewis-Moore acknowledged.

The Irish also played very smart Saturday night. They did commit seven penalties, but three were by freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell (defending USC star wideout Marqise Lee). All three plays saved touchdowns. The first flag came after Lee had torched Russell on what looked like it would be a sure 75-yard TD play. Instead, Russell grabbed Lee for an obvious pass interference flag and the Trojans got a first-and-10 at their own 40. Later, Russell's PI flags gave the ND defense added opportunities to deny USC from just outside the Fighting Irish goal-line.

Russell and other young players have emerged. None more so than QB Everett Golson, whose arm, by the way, is a lot better than Joe Montana made it out to be when the ND legend had some unflattering things to say about both the young quarterback and Kelly on the eve of the season.

Golson does not have prototypical size for a QB. He's around six feet tall, if that, but as he proved again Saturday night, he has no problem getting zip on the ball. He picked USC apart early, going 7 of 8 and connecting with four different receivers as the Irish went up 10-0. For the night the redshirt freshman threw for 217 yards and ran for another 47. Better still, he had zero turnovers and only took one sack despite facing a Trojan defense that came in No. 4 in the country in sacks. In truth, it probably wasn't a performance by the Irish offense that is scaring anyone in SEC country. ND did have to settle for five field goals and did attempt six, but their ground game was a force. Just like their young dual-threat QB.

Since October, Golson has an 8-2 TD-INT ratio. He's also rushed for 316 yards in those seven games and been sacked only six times. (And that stretch has included facing two of the four best pass-rushing teams in the nation: No. 1 Stanford and No. 4 USC.) In his previous four, he'd run for minus-11 and taken seven sacks.

Golson's development, coupled with a potent running attack, a seasoned O-line and a true difference-maker in tight end Tyler Eifert, make the Fighting Irish a problem for any defense. But for now we'll wait and see who is next for Notre Dame. One thing we do know for certain -- that ridiculous "Notre Dame is irrelevant" contention has been trampled, early this fall by the BCS power brokers and TV execs and then again by Te'o and his buddies.

Random Stuff

 Hats off to Will Muschamp on what he has done in Gainesville this year. Over the summer Muschamp would seemingly tell anyone who would listen about the Gators shortcomings last season in fourth quarters. Muschamp had a stat from SEC play he threw around, but Saturday's rivalry game at FSU seems like the most apt barometer of the coach toughening up this team. UF outscored the Noles, 24-6 in the fourth quarter to rally from a 37-26 win, giving the Gators their third win over a top 10 team. Actually, the Gators had scored 24 unanswered points until FSU scored a meaningless touchdown on the game's final play. Remarkably, it was UF's eighth come-from-behind win of the season and the Gators' third in the fourth quarter, according to UF writer Scott Carter. That stuff is made even more eye-catching when you consider how young Florida's QBs are.

The Gators brutalized the nation's No. 1 rush defense, rolling for 244 yards -- 174 more than FSU had been allowing per game.

The Gators now have, by far, the best resume of any SEC team. If anything, UF, with its young QB and its stout, seasoned defensive front is playing more like Notre Dame than anyone. But due to their six-turnover performance against Georgia, the Gators won't be in Atlanta next week and will miss out on the shot to play the Irish for the BCS title. If there were a four-team playoff this year, the Gators would be in it and they'd be a very tough out.

 This is vintage Steve Spurrier after his South Carolina Gamecocks won at archrival Clemson 27-17: "It seems like when we play Clemson, they don't play very well."

The Gamecocks have now beaten Clemson four in a row.

 Every time it seems like the ACC has a chance to make the perception like it's closing (at least a little of) the huge margin between the two leagues, we get these days where the gulf widens. The average score of four ACC-SEC match-ups: 40-19 and for the first time in three years: Clemson, FSU and Ga. Tech all lost their in-state rivalry games.

 Speaking of South Carolina, Jadeveon Clowney isn't in the Heisman discussion, but on Saturday he again showed why he's the most dominant player in college football. He notched 4.5 sacks to give him 13 and a nation-leading 21.5 TFLs in what has been an injury-marred season. Hold tight SEC O-line coaches. You only have to try and deal with him one more year and then he's the NFL's problem.

As for the Heisman race, it sure looks like from here that Johnny Manziel secured the stiff-arm statue as he broke Cam Newton's SEC record for total yards in an A&M romp over Mizzou. He has 4,600 yards of total offense and accounted for 43 TDs. On Monday when I was at A&M, Kevin Sumlin had reminded the Aggies that no one in the room, perhaps except for some coaches, had ever beaten Mizzou, their old Big 12 foe. Of course, what wasn't said was the Aggies had never faced Mizzou with Johnny Manziel running the show either.

Over the weekend, the New York Times had an interesting story about Manziel and his family. (Did you know Manziel's grandfather was the world's cockfighting champion in 1983?) Expect to read and hear much more about the freshman QB in the next two weeks.

Manziel has been like a modern day Dan Jenkins character. I think this is going to be fascinating to see how this all plays out.

 After ND finished off USC, Brian Kelly took the opportunity to stump for Te'o. "If a guy like Manti Te'o isn't going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," Kelly said. "Just give it to the offensive player every year and just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each week. He showed it again tonight with a key interception and a great play in the end zone. If the Heisman Trophy is what it is, I don't know how Manti Te'o is held out of that conversation."

Te'o definitely deserves to be in the conversation. He's the best player on the best defense and he's the heart and soul of the ND resurgence. He'll be on my ballot, but Manziel has been such a difference-maker for a program that went into a much tougher league and went into the toughest division in football and still produced its first 10-win season since 1998. Manziel also sparked the biggest win, when A&M went into Tuscaloosa and knocked off Alabama. I know skeptics will point to his struggles against LSU. (He threw three INTs.) But in five games against ranked opponents (including that loss to LSU) Manziel is averaging 320 yards passing, almost 100 yards rushing and has accounted for 11 TDs and four INTs while completing 67 percent of his passes.

 Ole Miss tripled its win total from last season, going from 2-10 to bowl eligible in Hugh Freeze's first season in Oxford. Impressive, and now Freeze and his staff really have something they can sell on the recruiting trail.

 For a fullback, Zach Boren is one heckuva linebacker. The Ohio State senior (and son of two ex-Michigan athletes) seemed to be everywhere for the Buckeyes' D on Saturday, leading OSU with nine tackles, along with two TFLs, a sack and a fumble recovery. The guy was a godsend for a battered defense that desperately needed linebackers. Curious to see what becomes of him in pro football.

 Stat of the Day, Take I: Urban Meyer has coached 11 seasons. He's now had two seasons where his teams have gone 12-0. In 2004 at Utah where the Utes finished No. 5 in the Coaches Poll and this year's 12-0 Ohio State team. Neither 12-0 season won him a national title. I think it's a long shot enough AP voters would put OSU No. 1 if ND loses in the BCS title game to get the Buckeyes part of a national title claim. Meyer though has won national championships for going 13-1.

 Stat of the Day, Take II: Courtesy of Big Ten beat writer Tom Dienhart, who points out that Penn State WR Allen Robinson had a Big Ten-best 77 catches for 1,018 yards and 11 TDs while PSU transfer Justin Brown, the guy who had been with the Nittany Lions until the NCAA sanctions hit, had 62 catches for 795 yards and four TDs for OU. Robinson is first PSU WR to lead the Big Ten in receiving yards. Also, Penn State RB Zach Zwinak finished with 1,000 yards rushing for the 8-4 Nittany Lions. Nittany Lion transfer Silas Redd ran for 817 for 7-5 USC.

 Stat of the Day, Take III: After not having a QB in the top 20 in passing efficiency in 2011, the SEC has the No. 1 (Aaron Murray) and No. 2 (AJ McCarron) guys in the nation this fall.

 Mike MacIntyre and San Jose State finished off the season with their most impressive win of the year, beating La. Tech 52-43 to move to 10-2 in a battle of two hot coaches on a lot of folks' radar. Remember, in 2010 -- MacIntyre's first at SJSU -- the Spartans were 1-12.

MacIntyre is from SEC country and has coached in the SEC. Don't be surprised if he gets a closer look from Arkansas.

 This sounds familiar: Stepfan Taylor ran over another Pac-12 opponent while the Cardinal D harassed another QB. Make it seven more sacks for Stanford in a strong 35-17 road win at UCLA. Congrats on locking up Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors, David Shaw.

Meanwhile, Jim Mora had more drama waiting for him in the postgame press conference when LA Times columnist T.J. Simers broadsided him. The whole scene is just awkward. You can watch it here.

 Duke Johnson is a stud. Miami's D on the other hand was a sieve this season, and it's going to take a lot of work before that group is decent enough to make the Canes a legit Top 15 team again despite all of the promising young talent on offense. UM finished 7-5 in spite of the D.

 It's time for Lane Kiffin to pull the plug on Lane Kiffin. .. at the very least as offensive coordinator and play-caller. Despite a ridiculous amount of skill talent, the Trojans struggle to execute and, again, on Saturday were plagued by a bewildering sense of clock management and play calls. The reality is Lane Kiffin is his own worst enemy--and consider how people in the South feel about him that's really saying something. Not just when it comes to things like public perception but also as it relates to running his own offense and his own team.

 Turns out Texas Tech's D wasn't all that much improved after all. The Red Raiders who entered October No. 5 in the nation in scoring defense, finished the regular season ranked No. 91 and allowed 52 or more in four of their last six games. In fairness, overtime games only hurt their stats that much more. Art Briles' Baylor Bears piled up 674 yards on Tech to get bowl eligible after rallying from a two-TD deficit.

 Tweet of the Day: From @PhillipFulmer: Proud to see the last of my recruits run through the "T" yesterday. They're fine young men and have represented us well through tough times.

It's been a bizarre ride those Vols have been on since they committed to Fulmer, getting stuck in the Kiffin and Derek Dooley fiascos and literally having seen dozens of assistant coaches come and go. But at least those Vols went out with a W against Kentucky this weekend.


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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