The Blitz: Irish looking SEC-like in title bid

Bob Davie tried and failed. So did Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.

Now,
it’s’ Brian Kelly that’s trying to raise Notre Dame back to a place in
the college football universe that it inhabited for generations.

The
third-year coach has the top-ranked Fighting Irish playing for its
first BCS championship on Jan. 7 against No. 2 Alabama (and at a school
that’s built on legends and superstitions it’s worth pointing out that
Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won their first titles in
Year 3).

But if there’s one place the Irish have failed in their
latest attempts at completing the comeback, it’s been on the biggest
stages.

I was in the Superdome in 2007 watching JaMarcus Russell
and LSU embarrass the Irish in a 41-14 blowout and the year before in
the Fiesta Bowl the Irish were stopped 34-21 by Ohio State.

Why
are these Irish different? Why could this team and this coach finally
bring Notre Dame all the way back and prompt writers across the country
to proclaim the echoes awoken?

Because these Irish are built exactly like the defending champions they’re trying to dethrone.

These Irish are built like an SEC team.

The
SEC has been defined by defenses during its run of six national titles
and the Crimson Tide are no exception. They rank eighth or higher in
five major defensive statistical categories, including first in total D
and (246.0 yards per game) and rush defense (79.7 ypg).

Kelly,
who arrived at South Bend as a noted quarterback whisper, and Broyles
Award finalist Bob Diaco have put together a comparable group using the
same scheme, a 3-4, and players across the front seven who would look
very comfortable lining up south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

In
2010, they brought in four-star nose tackle Louis Nix (5 ½ tackles for
loss and five pass breakups) and linebackers Prince Shembo (10 ½ tackles
for loss and 7 ½ sacks) and Danny Spond (38 tackles). Then last season
added a future All-America in five-star end Stephon Tuitt (13 tackles
for loss and 12 sacks) to go along with the likes of Heisman Trophy
candidate Manti Te’o.

Like the Tide, Notre Dame’s offense is
predicated by the run, averaging 202.5 yards to Alabama’s 224.6. And
like Alabama with AJ McCarron, the Irish have a quarterback in Everett
Golson that’s matured in his first season as a starter, going from a
game-manager to a leader.

The same Golson who completed 43.8
percent of his passes against Michigan State, and who was benched
against Michigan for throwing two picks on his first eight attempts, has
come into his own.

He’s helped the 49th-ranked offense become
something more than a liability, leading it to 403 yards against
Oklahoma and an average of 28 points over the last five games. Notre
Dame hit that figure just twice over the first seven games.

After
Saturday’s SEC Championship Game win over Georgia, I asked Barrett
Jones his perception of the Irish. Born on May 25, 1990, two years after
Notre Dame won its last national title, it has won five bowl games in
his lifetime.

“It’s kind of a similar place to here; there’s a
lot of tradition and history. There’s a lot of people nationwide who
love Notre Dame,” he said.

Unlike the Tide, who have regained their place among the game’s elite, the Irish faithful are still waiting.

Davie
couldn’t deliver and neither could Willingham or Weis. But Brian Kelly
could and if he does, this year, next year of the year after that, he’ll
have done it with a team that looks very similar to the teams and the
conference that has dominated the landscape for the better part of his
century.

His Irish were built for this.

MACtion hits the BCS

Northern Illinois is in a BCS bowl. But does it deserve to be?

The
rules are the rules and Northern Illinois finished in the top 16 of the
final BCS standings and had to be ahead of one AQ champ (they wound up
finishing ahead of two, Louisville and Wisconsin).

But the
Huskies have a schedule that ranks 120th in the nation (i.e. dead-last),
which is the worst of any team to play in a BCS bowl, beating out
Hawaii which had the 111th-ranked schedule in 2011. Plus, Northern
Illinois lost to 4-8 Iowa.

That simply doesn’t look like a BCS
team, regardless of whether they met the qualifications and the Big 12
coaches, four specifically, weren’t buying it either.

Baylor’s
Art Briles, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads and
Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops each had Northern Illinois no higher than 19th in
their final Coaches’ poll ballots. Meanwhile, they each tired to pump
up the prospects of the Sooners, putting them no lower than ninth.

Of
course it didn’t work out as Oklahoma wound up in the Cotton Bowl,
while Northern Illinois gives the MAC a payday it’s never seen before.

Heisman Watching

The votes are in, mine included.

I’ll
divulge the process that I went into in picking the 78th Heisman Trophy
winner later this week. But the consensus when discussing this with
other voters is that we’re headed for a history-making ceremony with
Texas A&M redshirt freshman QB Johnny Manziel the favorite.

A
Manziel victory, the first ever for a freshman, would put him among the
award’s trailblazing winners. It’s a group that includes the first
junior (Doc Blanchard in 1945), back-to-back winner (Archie Griffin in
1974 and ’75), the wide receiver (Tim Brown in ’87), primarily defensive
player (Charles Woodson in 1997) and sophomore (Tim Tebow in ’07).

It’s
heady company, for sure and it remains to be seen if older voters will
let it happen. But this much is certain with days before the ceremony:
this has been the most surprising selection process I’ve been a part
of.    

Ups and Downs

Up: Wisconsin

They
only played in the Big Ten title game because the teams that actually
finished ahead of them were ineligible. But the Badgers ran for a
whopping 539 yards – the most ever given up by Nebraska – to win a third
consecutive Rose Bowl berth. They are the league’s first team since
Michigan from 1977-79 to make three straight trips to Pasadena.

Down: Georgia

Five
yards. It’s how close Georgia came to an SEC title and a spot in the
BCS title game. Instead, the Bulldogs are relegated to Orlando and a
matchup with Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. That has to be especially
hard to swallow given their rival Florida is off to the Sugar Bowl. The
Bulldogs put themselves in a position to beat Alabama, but ultimately
it was another tough loss for Mark Richt, who is now 2-10 vs. top 10
teams since 2007.

Up: Baylor

They were already
bowl-bound for the third consecutive year, but the Bears made it three
seasons with at least seven wins for the first time since 1949-51 by
pulling past Oklahoma State. The Bears may have a budding star on their
hands in Lache Seastrunk, who has run for 693 yards and 8.0 per carry
the last five games.

Down: Louisiana Tech

At 9-3
and with the nation’s No. 2 offense, the Bulldogs won’t go bowling.
Extended an offer in the Independence Bowl, they turned it down with
other (i.e. bigger) options still available to them. But with Northern
Illinois knocking Oklahoma out of a BCS spot it created a reaction that
saw the Liberty, the bowl the Bulldogs had their sights on, taking Iowa
State instead. It was a costly mistake that will cost the nation a final
glimpse of QB Colby Cameron.

Up: Pitt

For the
first time in school history the Panthers have a 3,000-yard passer in
Tino Sunseri and a 1,000-yard rusher with Ray Graham. More importantly
they also became bowl eligible in the first year under coach Paul
Chryst, overcoming a 2-4 start and will meet Ole Miss in the Compass
Bowl.

Down: Middle Tennessee

The Blue Raiders, who
last week announced that they would be joining Conference USA, were shut
out as Arkansas State claimed its second straight Sun Belt crown.
Riding a four-game winning streak into the matchup, in which they
averaged 29 points and 400 yards, Middle Tennessee mustered just 203
yards in the loss.  

Telling stats

3
Despite losing the ACC Championship Game to Florida State, Georgia Tech
is going to the Sun Bowl after receiving a waiver from the NCAA last
week. They join North Texas (5-7 in ’01) and UCLA (6-7 in ’11) as the
only teams to play in bowls with losing record.

10 – Boise
State reached 10 wins with its 27-21 win over Nevada. Chris Petersen
has now reached double-digits in victories in all seven seasons at the
school.

77 – Oregon State set a school record for most
points in a game in its 77-3 rout of Nicholl State, eclipsing the 76 it
scored against Williamette in 1931.

They said it

“(Strong) told us he’s not going anywhere, don’t listen to the rumors.”

Louisville wide receiver Damian Copeland on coach Charlie Strong, who
has been rumored as a candidate at Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee.

“My first championship ever. I’m still ecstatic about it. I really can’t even explain it right now. It just feels so good.”
— Alex Singleton after the Tulsa RB’s 1-yard score in overtime gave the Golden Hurricane their first C-USA crown since 2005.

“It
seemed like a place that was very close to getting to the next step. I
feel like I can make a difference here. That was the one thing I wanted
to be able to do.”

— Dave Doeren during his introductory news conference after leaving Northern Illinois for North Carolina State.

Cyrstal ball (BCS edition)

Rose Bowl: Wisconsin vs. Stanford (Jan. 1)

Both
teams bring plenty of star power at RB with the Badgers’ Montee Ball
and Cardinal’s Stepfan Taylor. But if one of these defenses can manage
to take either offense out of its game, which QB comes through? I’ll put
my faith in Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, who has a 72.7 completion
percentage in the last five games.

Prediction: Cardinal 31, Badgers 20

Orange Bowl: Florida State vs. Northern Illinois (Jan. 1)

Nation,
the Huskies. Huskies, the nation. Behind QB Jordan Lynch, the MAC
Offensive Player of the Year, Northern Illinois became the latest non-AQ
team to burst into the BCS. The Seminoles have been less than
impressive of late, but Bjoern Wener and Florida State’s second-ranked
defense may be too much for Lynch and Co.

Prediction: Seminoles 40, Huskies 27

Sugar Bowl: Louisville vs. Florida (Jan. 2)

Former
Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong helped the Gators win
national titles in 2006 and ’08 before leaving for Louisville in ’09. So
he knows exactly what kind of challenge Florida’s fifth-ranked defense
will pose for a Cardinals team without a win over a Top 25 team. Teddy
Bridgewater is one of the nation’s most underrated QBs, but he won’t be
enough.

Prediction: Gators 30, Cardinals 20

Fiesta Bowl: Oregon vs. Kansas State (Jan. 3)

It’s the game that in ’10 Bill Snyder kept from coming to fruition as he backed out of the home-and-home games
for ’11 and ’12. But now it’s happening and should provide an
interesting matchup as Snyder’s disciplined, opportunistic defense tries
to slow down Chip Kelly’s frenetic offense. This has shootout written
all over it.

Prediction: Ducks 38, Wildcats 34

BCS Championship Game: Notre Dame vs. Alabama (Jan. 7)

The
Irish would seem to have the defense to go toe-to-toe with the Crimson
Tide. But as ‘Bama showed in racking up 350 yards against a star-laden
Georgia D, the Eddie Lacy/T.J. Yeldon running game is too tough and too
deep to stop. Expect the duo to be the difference, wearing down Notre
Dame and putting its revival on hold.

Prediction: Crimson Tide 21, Notre Dame 14