The holidays are over, and I truly hope everyone enjoyed or at least survived them. It's been a very long time since I have looked forward to receiving gifts on Christmas, but this year, it especially didn't matter. That's because I had already received the best gift I could have hoped for, long before Christmas.
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are undefeated at 12-0, ranked number one and are playing for the National Championship on Monday, January 7th.
That remained unchanged on Christmas Day. That remained unchanged on New Year's Day.
I always take time off during the holidays, watching as many college bowl games as time allows. As I explained in a previous blog post "South Side Irish, South Bend and Notre Dame," college football is my favorite sport and Notre Dame is my team. I am biased, but I do firmly believe the sport generates more interest in the years Notre Dame is relevant. Those types of years have been few and far between since the last time Notre Dame won a National Championship in 1988. The last time the Fighting Irish won a top tier bowl game was the 1993 Cotton Bowl. So for the most part, by the time I go back to work after New Year's Day, their season is over and I'm disappointed. It's true, I still look forward to the National Championship game, hoping for an instant classic like Vince Young leading the Texas Longhorns over the USC Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
This year is different. This year, I will still watch as many bowl games as I can during my holiday break. If a game is not a blowout, I will watch the entire game, wringing every available ounce of college football enjoyment out of each one. But it will be just that -- enjoyment. The other bowl games will be like appetizers for the main course.
I can already hear all the comments: OK, you will just have to wait until January 7th to be disappointed. Last I checked, Notre Dame were 10-point underdogs. In my opinion, the SEC is still the fastest, toughest conference in all of college football. Nick Saban has led the Alabama Crimson Tide to the championship two out of the last thee years. He knows how to close, and he is hoping to make it three out of four and an indisputable dynasty. Many say that this year's SEC Championship game between Georgia and Alabama was the National Championship game, and either team would beat Notre Dame. All of this may be true, and based on ND's recent performance in major bowl games, it's hard to argue.
But, I feel like this year, the Fighting Irish are a different team. They have rarely been dominant. They have had very close games with teams they were "supposed" to beat. They have had very close games with teams they were fairly evenly matched with. I watched them progress, sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. I have watched them find a way to win games, where in the recent past I have seen them find a way to lose. I have seen the defense stand up and shut down teams when it matters most. I have seen them surprise others who were convinced they would lose. I have seen them grow -- into a team.
I have seen Brian Kelly grow into the coach the Notre Dame faithful all hoped he'd become. I have disagreed with some of his decisions, mostly pulling Everett Golson out of games and putting in Tommy Rees. If it were me, I would have left Golson in, even if it cost the game. I feel Golson is the future, and I never dreamed they could go undefeated by switching quarterbacks. I was wrong.
At the end of last year, I told a friend I didn't see any way that Kelly could keep up the "3rd year tradition" of bringing home a National Championship like his predecessors Parseghian, Devine and Holtz. I sincerely hope I'm wrong again.
There was no offensive superstar this year like Rocket Ismail or Tim Brown. But I feel Golson has a legitimate shot to grow into a Heisman hopeful. I have thoroughly enjoyed the trio of running backs, enough to make up the nicknames Cierre "Cherry" Wood, Theo "Sick" Riddick and George "Gatling Gun" Atkinson III. Tyler Eifert is an outstanding tight end, and if Golson has learned how to walk up to the line and read when it's best to target him like Tommy Rees does, they will be formidable.
I believe the turning point of this year began last year, when Manti Te'o changed his mind and decided to return to Notre Dame because he had "unfinished business." I believe he provided the leadership and inspiration for other defensive standouts like Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt to emerge, and galvanized the whole defense to provide him with the foundation to have his best year ever.
I believe in this team. I believe that Notre Dame will still be undefeated and ranked Number One on January 8th. I believe.
Come on Irish, wake up the echoes.