12.12.12: THE UNDEFEATED FIGHTING IRISH OF NOTRE DAME

The 2012 Fighting Irish of Notre Dame football finished a perfect 12-0 in regular season play, searching for National Championship #12. Okay, so technically the game won’t be played till January 2013, but it’s still a cool equation!

(The 2012 Notre Dame football team in Dublin, Ireland in the season opener where they throttled Navy 50-10)

I’ll admit, although an avid Notre Dame football fan, if you would’ve told me before this college football season began that Notre Dame would finish 12-0 and be playing for the BCS National Championship, I would’ve told you that you were insane. They had the hardest ranked schedule going into this season, a season I thought they would finish slightly above .500 possibly 8-4, maybe 9-3 at best. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was just the conglomeration of mediocrity through the Davie, Willingham, and Weis eras all rolled into one giant quagmire of disappointment that lead me to believe that’s all Notre Dame would be from here on out… mediocre. Sure there’s been flashes and fleeting moments of promise since the Lou Holtz era ended in South Bend, Indiana but an inevitable cold harsh reality always returned to haunt the Irish. Namely, the constant losing to top 25 ranked opponents and getting beat (Sometimes badly) in any prominent BCS bowl or any bowl for that matter losing nine straight at one point. A big key signature victory had been missing for the Irish since those amazing Holtz teams, and the fall from grace and being a national powerhouse was a far one.

Then came Brian Kelly, who agreed to become Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2009. I believed this was the right choice for the Irish, he was the man I wanted as head coach all along during the hunt, and that much is true. At first it looked like Notre Dame was still back-peddling though stumbling out of the block but recovering nicely to end 8-5 including ending a long losing streak to #1 rival USC beating them in Southern California and capping it off by defeating another arch-nemesis Miami easily in the Sun Bowl 33-17.

At the start of 2011 Notre Dame had been hyped significantly, even expected to make a BCS Bowl. Several key factors though lead to a disappointing season. Turnovers were the main killer, 10 in the first two games alone that should’ve been easy victories for the Irish over South Florida and rival Michigan. Instead, Notre Dame fell to 0-2 out of the gate and finished the regular season 8-4. They played in the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State that at first looked promising. Notre Dame lead the game 14-3 going into the 4th quarter. But again turnovers killed Irish hopes as they turned it over three times in the game coupled with completely lackluster and terrible play from QBs Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix down the stretch. Notre Dame blew the lead, then the game losing the bowl 18-14, finishing the season 8-5 again.

Another 8-5 season or even worse would be intolerable to not only Coach Kelly and the team but certainly to the ND fan base. Kelly knew it, but there he and his staff were, staring down a murder’s row 2012 schedule. Changes had to be made, beginning at QB placing red shirt Freshman phenom Everett Golson under center. Over the season Golson has matured beyond his first year becoming a versatile threat with both his arm and his legs, the kind of QB needed to operate in Kelly’s system and really make it thrive. The rest of the offensive personnel stepped up big too giving Golson multiple key weapons to work with including Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, TJ Jones, and George Atkinson III leading the pack. Even more staggering though than anything on the offensive side of the ball was the defense. Assistant Coach and Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco is a defensive Zen Master. Assembling a stifling defense lead by LB Manti Te’o (Who should probably win the Heisman but won’t due to offensive player bias) the Irish D were and still are near or at the top of nearly every major team defense stat.

Defining wins against highly ranked teams and bitter rivals have eluded the Irish over the past 15 or so seasons, not this year. It began with Notre Dame thrashing rival Navy in Dublin, Ireland 50-10. Other key victories included a dominant win on the road over at the time #10 ranked Michigan State 20-3 followed by a win over rival #18 Michigan then a trampling once again of the hated Hurricanes 41-3 in Soldier Field. They beat another rival in #17 Stanford (Now #8) in an OT thriller and it was the biggest win of the season to that point. That is, until they renewed another war walking into hostile Norman, Oklahoma to face the #8 Sooners. Notre Dame not only beat Oklahoma in Norman (where they were 79-4 under Bob Stoops up until that point) but they did so convincingly 30-13. They finished the regular season beating USC once again in the Coliseum to cement their undefeated season and punch a ticket to Miami for the BCS National Championship. Yes there were stumbles through out the season too including a near heart attack inducing triple OT win over Pittsburgh but Kelly’s sound fundamentals which everyone is buying into now kept the Irish poised, confident and calm leading them to victories where in seasons past that might’ve lead to panic, and then turnovers and then losses.

Now, the undefeated and #1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish await what will be their toughest challenge to date, the winner of the SEC Championship game in Alabama vs. Georgia. Not surprisingly, Notre Dame will most likely be an underdog against which ever team comes out of that battleĀ  the winner. And yet, how many times have they been the underdog this year and they’re 12-0 and ranked #1? The SEC, like the conference or hate it is undoubtedly the powerhouse conference in College Football, there’s no denying it. The SEC has produced the last six BCS National Champions and will be looking to make it seven in a row. The story has already written itself. After being maligned by anti-Notre Dame fans and the media for being a shell of their former greatness with claims of being overrated, the Irish just might have flipped the coin to the other side as destiny’s darlings being backed by many who once hated them (I’ve ran into more than my fair share this season) to finally topple the mighty Goliath, the SEC. Of course a 12-0 regular season is incredible and will never be forgotten, but if they could pull off this one last remarkable feat with a 12th National Championship by beating the monstrous SEC putting an exclamation point on the end of a storybook season, it just might be the greatest chapter written in Notre Dame football lore yet. And that is one mighty big tome in American sports, perhaps the biggest.

I saw this paraphrased quote of an old Irish blessing on Twitter posted shortly after Notre Dame became #1 after both Kansas State and Oregon were upset pole vaulting the Irish to the top spot and fell in love with it, fitting their season perfectly:

The road rose to meet us. The wind is now at our back. The soft rain fell on our field. And The Lord is holding us in the hollow of His hand.

The bright luster has returned to the Golden Dome, ladies and gentlemen your 2012 echo waking, thunder shaking #1 Fighting Irish of Notre Dame!

GO IRISH! BEAT the SEC! #12in12

(Return to Glory: The Irish are #1 again, heading back to the National Championship)

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