OFI: No Such Thing as Miracles
by Matt Hinton
Last week, just a few days after Notre Dame climbed to the top of the Associated Press poll for the first time in 19 years, and the top of the Bowl Championship Series standings for the first time ever, the resident myth makers at Sports Illustrated put the Irish's resurgence into perspective with a reverent cover hailing "THE NOTRE DAME MIRACLE." After all this time, and all those disappointments, it does look that way: in August, the perennially "overrated" Irish began the season unranked in the preseason polls, facing a nightmare of a schedule the featured six different teams that won at least ten games the previous season. As of Sunday night, the undefeated Irish are bound for the BCS Championship Game in Miami after a 22-13 win at USC, which began the season ranked number one. Five of Notre Dame's dozen victories came by a touchdown or less, two in overtime, and one on the dumb luck of an opponent's missed field goal. If that doesn't qualify as a miracle, sanctified in the eyes of Touchdown Jesus, my God, what does?
But at some point Saturday night, as the clock ticked down on another low-scoring yet utterly convincing victory over their biggest rival, the moment became a palpable reminder that this is exactly what Notre Dame expected to happen when it hired Brian Kelly. In December 2009, Kelly was the hottest available name on the market, a known quantity with championships at every level he'd taken on. He won two national titles at Division II Grand Valley State, a conference championship at previously flailing Central Michigan, and back-to-back Big East crowns during a 34-6 run at Cincinnati, where he guided the Bearcats to the first top-25, top-20 and top-10 finishes in school history in consecutive seasons. There were no hints of scandal or disgruntled colleagues in his wake. From Notre Dame's perspective, the only drawback on Kelly's resumé was his total lack of experience (even as an assistant) at any school that remotely resembles a national power, the main reason more than a few Irish fans seemed to consider him somewhat beneath the Golden Dome's station.
Those small-school roots, though, are just another of the many ways that Kelly personified the antithesis of the guy he was replacing, Charlie Weis. From the beginning, temperamentally, he was the consummate anti-Weis. Where his predecessor came off as gruff, impersonal, impatient with the media, aloof to much of the campus, and perfectly content to be caught on camera scowling in a sweatsuit. Kelly arrived for his introductory press conference enthusiastic, manicured, and quick to emphasize the importance of personal relationships and communicating effectively with the media. Weis, a student of the Parcells/Belichick school with an ego to match his Super Bowl rings, was just there to coach football. Despite his worst moments, Kelly has that crucial bit of politician Weis totally lacked.
That's style, not substance, but where Kelly has most clearly distinguished himself is in his success adjusting his style to the substance at hand. At both Central Michigan and Cincinnati, his teams stood out for their up-tempo, spread offenses, which put up prolific numbers to overcome some fairly horrid defenses. (One of Kelly's first concerns at Notre Dame was whether NBC's television timeouts would somehow impede the accelerated tempo he intended to install, "versus how it was played in the past.") The team that he is ultimately taking to the championship game features a vintage ball-control attack operated by a run-oriented freshman, Everett Golson, and has failed to exceed 20 points in regulation in fully half its games. The offensive guru has built a winner that owes everything to its first-rate defense.
In that sense, he's assembled a team that looks suspiciously like the defensively-oriented SEC outfits that have dominated the championship game over the past six years, complete with a blue-chip, NFL-bound front seven to rival either of the Irish's prospective opponents in the title game, Alabama and Georgia. Whichever side punches its ticket to Miami with a win in Saturday's SEC Championship Game, it will almost certainly be favored to beat Notre Dame in the big one, and SEC fans will have more than a month to dredge up the vanquished ghosts of Ohio State and Oklahoma outfits that have fallen short in the past to remind us all what the Irish are in for. But more so than any of the victims in that streak, these Irish seem built to give as good as they get.
- Ohio State beat Michigan Saturday, 26-21, a significant win first and foremost among Buckeye faithful for the simple-but-essential pleasure of beating the hated Wolverines. In the bigger picture, though, the victory also clinched the Buckeyes' first perfect season in a decade, and only the fourth undefeated, untied campaign at OSU since World War I. The previous three Buckeye team that accomplished the feat –- in 1954, 1968 and 2002 -– all won national championships by finishing atop the final Associated Press poll. For the 2012 edition, banned from the postseason by NCAA sanctions and hindered in the AP poll by the mediocrity of the Big Ten, the zero in the loss column and a pair of gold pants will have to be enough.
- Barring a truly shocking development that no one has imagined yet, at least nine of the ten slots in BCS bowls have either been settled (Notre Dame, Florida, Oregon) or will be settled in various conference championship games this weekend. At the moment, the final at-large bid is almost certainly reserved for the runner-up in the Big 12, likely Oklahoma. But based on a quirk in the selection process, the Sooners' ticket may be commandeered by a "Have Not" program from outside of the automatic-bid conferences. According to BCS rules, a champion of a "mid-major" conference is eligible for a BCS bowl if a) It's ranked in the top 12 of the final BCS standings, or b) it's ranked in the top 16 of the final standings, and also ranked ahead of the champion of at least one of the Big Six conferences. Neither scenario seemed relevant prior to last weekend, until the No. 15, No. 16, No. 17, No. 18, No. 19, No. 20 and No. 21 teams all lost, and the standings parted like the Red Sea for Kent State –- yes, Kent State, 40 years removed from its last appearance in a bowl game of any prestige –- to move up to No. 17, just one step from the magic number. Friday, the Golden Flashes (11-1) play Northern Illinois (also 11-1, and ranked 21st) in the MAC Championship Game, the winner of which hopes to have enough juice to make the leap into the top 16. If that happens, the Big 12 will be left out in the cold.
- Per team policy restricting media access to freshmen –- even redshirt freshmen –- Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has yet to utter a word for public consumption, but stated his final argument for the Heisman Trophy loud and clear Saturday with 438 total yards and five touchdowns in A&M's 59-29 romp over Missouri. For the season, Manziel has already surpassed Cam Newton's SEC record for total offense without the benefit of a conference championship or bowl game, and is also the latest member of the exclusive 3,000/1,000 Club for quarterbacks who have passed for 3,000 yards and rushed for 1,000 in the same season -– a category that did not exist before Vince Young willed it into being in 2005. The Heisman hype is so strong that the team finally relented on Monday to allowing reporters to talk to Manziel via conference call, just to ensure that he's done it at least once before being shipped off to New York City to stand before the entire country with no facemask to hide behind.
- The end of the regular season on Saturday yielded to the annual wave of coaching attrition on Sunday, aka "Black Sabbath," when no fewer than six FBS head coaches were handed their walking papers at the end of disappointing seasons. In all, the day claimed Arkansas's John L. Smith, Auburn's Gene Chizik, Boston College's Frank Spaziani, Colorado's Jon Embree, N.C. State's Tom O'Brien and Purdue's Danny Hope, bringing the number of major college openings to 13 and counting. Though Chizik got the axe only two years removed from a Newton-led national championship, the only moderate surprise of the day may have been Colorado's decision to ditch Embree, whose teams were undeniably terrible – the Buffaloes won a single game this season, over fellow bottom dweller Washington State – but could have hardly been otherwise given the rock-bottom state of the program he inherited from predecessor Dan Hawkins two years ago. If Colorado is anxious for a guy who can whip that debacle into shape in two years, it's going to be waiting a long time.
OFI TOP 25
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1. Notre Dame (12-0). Now the Irish have to figure out how to manage a brutal 45-day turnaround.
2. Florida (11-1). Gators haven't always looked the part, but with Saturday's 37-26 win over Florida State, they've beaten four teams currently ranked in the top 15 of every major poll. No one else has beaten more than two.
3. Alabama (11-1). The most impressive part of Bama's 49-0 obliteration of Auburn? The mercy it took to limit it to that after a 42-0 first half.
4. Oregon (11-1). When Oregon State cut the Ducks' lead to three points in the third quarter, the Ducks responded by scoring 28 consecutive points in less than twelve minutes.
5. Ohio State (12-0). If not for sanctions, the Buckeyes' borderline schedule would be the most scrutinized subject in college football.
6. Georgia (11-1). Bulldogs split their big games against Florida and South Carolina, and the rest of the schedule leaves a lot to be desired. But there is no better place to bury remaining doubts than the SEC Championship Game.
7. Kansas State (10-1). No one could have imagined in August that K-State would be in a position to clinch the Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl bid in Saturday's finale against Texas, and still consider the season a missed opportunity after last week's deflating flop at Baylor.
8. Stanford (10-2). Cardinal were up and down over the first two months of the season. Now they're on their way to the Pac-12 Championship Game with three consecutive wins over ranked opponents -– Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA -– since naming redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan the starting quarterback.
9. LSU (10-2). Tigers corralled Manziel, came within seconds of upsetting Alabama, and could be the best team ever to find itself shut out of a BCS bowl.
10. Texas A&M (10-2). Aggies led their new conference in rushing offense as well as passing and made a very loud statement about the potential of the spread against top-tier SEC defenses.
11. South Carolina (10-2). Excluding games against one another, the top six teams in the SEC finished the regular season 54-0 against everyone else.
12. Oklahoma (9-2). Sooners have fended off back-to-back upset bids from West Virginia and Oklahoma State with game-winning/-tying touchdowns in the final 30 seconds of regulation. They're still going to flip if the BCS is forced to pass them over for a team from the MAC.
13. Nebraska (10-2). Huskers rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Wisconsin in September, and opened as slight favorites to edge the Badgers in Saturday's rematch for the Big Ten championship.
14. Florida State (10-2). Noles are almost certainly heading for the Orange Bowl as ACC champs, but along with Clemson's loss to South Carolina, their fourth-quarter flop against Florida was another blow to the ACC's national rep.
15. Oregon State (8-3). Beavers have nothing in particular at stake this weekend, but a letdown against Nicholls State (a make-up date for a game thwarted by Hurricane Isaac) would be a huge, unexpected boost to the MAC champs' room to advance into the top sixteen.
16. UCLA (9-3). After five straight wins, Saturday's 35-17 loss to Stanford was a wake-up call. But where the Pac-12 championship is concerned, the Bruins are better off hitting the road for a rematch in Palo Alto than preparing to play Oregon anywhere.
17. Clemson (10-2). With losses to Florida State and South Carolina, the Tigers' most impressive victim of the season is N.C. State, and the Wolfpack just fired their head coach.
18. Texas (8-3). Thanksgiving flop against TCU erased the progress of a four-game winning streak, ended any hope of a BCS bid, and cost the Longhorns their starting quarterback at Kansas State. But an upset in Manhattan would restore the sense that the program is still inching forward from the disappointments of 2010 and 2011.
19. Oklahoma State (7-4). On paper, OSU's numbers are slightly better than the stats that propelled last year's team within a hair of the BCS title game, except in one category: Where the 2011 Cowboys led the nation in turnover margin, the 2012 edition ranks 85th.
20. TCU (7-4). Horned Frogs have won plenty of big games under coach Gary Patterson, including a Rose Bowl to cap an undefeated season in 2010, but none were sweeter than whipping the Longhorns in Austin, on national television, for the first time since the Lyndon Johnson administration.
21. Utah State (10-2). No BCS buzz for the final champions of the soon-to-be-dissolved WAC, but all that separated the Aggies from a 12-0 finish was a combined five points against BYU and Wisconsin.
22. Kent State (11-1). Golden Flashes' only loss of the season came at Kentucky in September, which also happened to be the Wildcats' only win of the season over an FBS opponent.
23. Northern Illinois (11-1). Defending MAC champs have taken 15 straight and 24 of their last 26 in conference play, but somehow still lost to Iowa.
24. Michigan (8-4). Wolverines' losses came against four teams -– Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska -– boasting a combined record of 45-3, and one of those three was Nebraska's head-to-head loss at Ohio State. If only there was more to recommend the teams the Wolverines actually beat.
25. Northwestern (9-3). Wildcats are headed to their fifth consecutive bowl game under Pat Fitzgerald, but still haven't won in the postseason since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
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In: TCU, Kent State, Northern Illinois, Northwestern. Out: Louisville, Rutgers, Arizona, Washington.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
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1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Whatever doubts still existed re: Clowney's actual production relative to the blue-chip hype that's surrounded his brief career, they were permanently buried Saturday night alongside Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, the victim on all five of Clowney's sacks in a 27-17 Carolina win. In the face of such a relentless rush, Boyd served up two interceptions and the Tigers were held to just 328 total yards –- more than 200 yards below their season average coming in.
2. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State. FSU's defense wore down in the fourth quarter –- no thanks to the turnover-prone Noles offense –- but the German-born Werner spent the first three quarters taking up residence in Florida's backfield, racking up four sacks and a fumble recovery on a botched handoff. For the season, that moves Werner ahead of teammate Tank Carradine for the ACC lead in sacks, and pulls him into a tie for the national lead with Clowney.
3. Bacarri Rambo, S, Georgia. The appropriately named Rambo wreaked havoc on Georgia Tech's triple option attack, personally forcing three turnovers –- two fumbles, one interception -– on top of eight tackles in the most lopsided UGA-Tech game in a decade. At one point in the first quarter, Rambo forced two fumbles on the same drive, including a hand-to-hand theft of Tech's Robert Godhigh near the goal line that Rambo subsequently returned 49 yards to set up the Bulldog offense in Yellow Jacket territory.
4. Kevin Byard, S, Middle Tennessee State. Against Troy, Byard finished with six tackles, a forced fumble, and two interceptions, the second of which he took 77 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of a come-from-behind 24-21 win for the Blue Raiders. With that, MTSU moves to 6-1 in Sun Belt Conference play and visit Arkansas State this weekend in a winner-take-all tilt for the SBC championship.
5. Jordan Hill, DT, Penn State. Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball set an NCAA record Saturday with his 79th career touchdown, but the line of scrimmage ultimately belonged to Hill, who turned in 12 tackles with two sacks and two additional tackles for loss in his final college game. Ball managed just 27 yards rushing in the second half, and the Nittany Lions kept the Badgers off the scoreboard in overtime for a tough, 24-21 win to cap a very tough year.