Monday Morning Jones: Notre Dame marching onward to victory

Harry How

Notre Dame did it. So did Colin Kaepernick. Alex Smith? He's just done. That, what the NFL should do with Ndamukong Suh and more in this week's Monday Morning Jones.

Seeing how the world will treat the SEC Championship like the real National Championship Game, we better hurry up and give props to Notre Dame now. In a week, we'll hear why they just don't have a chance. Well, let the Monday Morning Jones start preparing you to hold your horses. On to the weekend...

Count out Notre Dame if you want, OK? Like it not, they'll play for it all in Miami. There is a legitimate skepticism around Notre Dame, the sort that shouldn't have dissipated simply because the Fighting Irish beat an unranked team on the road. They pass the "eye test," but still don't ace it. They've played a strong schedule, but still don't have one great win, unlike either likely foe Alabama or Georgia (on both counts).

But if you don't think the Irish can win the national championship this season -- despite how many times they've proven the masses wrong this season -- just take a look at the teams celebrating anniversaries this week. Doesn't Notre Dame remind you a bit of the 2002 Ohio State team that beat an "unbeatable" Miami team full of future NFL players in the Fiesta Bowl? Or how about the ‘92 Alabama team that did something similar in the Sugar Bowl?

(On another note, Miami lost to three teams that fit this narrative.)

Like this year's Irish, none of those teams wowed anyone. They leaned on their defenses which, like ND's unit, didn't yield more than 21 points before their bowl game. Each had a great head coach, and each had a chance in any game it played.

Count the Irish out if you want, but some of us have seen movies like this. We wouldn't be surprised to see Notre Dame win it all.

But it's gotta suck to be Florida, right? Sure, Florida lost to Georgia, but they didn't get beaten by 28 points on national television like the Bulldogs did at South Carolina. The Gators, unfortunately for them, lost late in a system where that matters as much as whether you lost at all. The Gators are the SEC's Notre Dame, a brutally effective, aesthetically unpleasant team few enjoy watching, but even fewer enjoy playing against. Saturday's win at Florida State solidified their resumé as the best in the nation. They survived their SEC West schedule -- featuring two teams currently ranked in the Top 10 -- unscathed. Had they switched schedules, they're probably facing Alabama in the SEC Championship for the third time in five years.

But they're not. Florida beat four teams currently ranked in the top-12. Georgia played two ranked teams all season. Those are the breaks in the era of the SuperSized conference, where teams within divisions can have wildly divergent schedules. Florida played the sort of "SEC Schedule" people talk about when praising the conference's strength. Turns out, they would have been better off with Georgia's more ACC-like slate.

The Alex Smith era is over in San Francisco. Colin Kaepernick put up a decent stat line in the 49ers' 31-21 win over the Saints, but numbers don't explain why Smith is done in San Francisco. Yes, Smith has been good this year. In fact, completing 70 percent of his passes and averaging over eight yards per attempt, he's playing about as well as he possibly can. But teams that dared him to air it out, like the Vikings and Giants, derailed the Niners offense.

Since Jim Harbaugh's flirtation with Peyton Manning, we knew there was something he wanted that he didn't see in Smith. Well, he sees it in Kaepernick, and so could anyone else who's watched him play since he took the reins. Kaepernick's arm strength and mobility don't just give the 49ers a higher ceiling than Smith does. They also fill the sort of holes that can stop a division champion from surviving a single-elimination tournament.

Maybe all this team needs is a cerebral "game manager," but why should it settle for that? Kapernick made throws Sunday that Smith couldn't dream of making, and his decision-making was sound. The Niners defense is good enough to allow a young quarterback to lean on it when necessary.

Then there's the uncomfortable discussion this necessitates. If you didn't understand why players would dare lie about suffering from concussions, just look at what's happened to Alex Smith. Football players are uncommonly vulnerable to losing their jobs, and they're more aware of their short shelf-life than nearly all other athletes. They know missing practices, let alone games, can cost them their jobs. And now, they know that being the third-rated passer in the NFL, on a team with the second-best record in its conference, who led his team to the brink of the Super Bowl, will not save you from the bench if the next man up can do the job. So yeah, you better believe players will pretend they haven't suffered head injuries. It's hard to worry about the future when you're so concerned with losing your job.

Was that Eli Manning out there last night? For the first time in over a month, Manning looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Sunday's blowout win over the Packers was the first time in four games he threw a touchdown pass, and the first since October 14 he threw more touchdowns than interceptions. So long as the Giants defense has to force turnovers to be successful -- New York has forced 29 this season -- it's imperative the offense takes care of the ball.

The Giants should be running away with the NFC East, where every other team is below .500. Instead, a loss next week to Washington could leave them with just a one-game lead over the Redskins with games against the Ravens and Falcons -- whose combined record is 19-3 -- on deck. Eli may have returned just in time, because the Giants will need him more than ever the next three weeks.

Here's all that need be said about Ndamukong Suh. I hate to be Draconian ... but I don't. Suh got a two-game suspension for stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith's upper body in 2011. If kicking Matt Schaub in the nuts isn't treated as being at least as egregious, then the NFL's got a really warped value structure. I mean, is there any man out there who would rather be kicked in the nuts than having his arm stomped upon? I didn't think so.

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Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE

This season in Lakerland is gonna be a doozy. Friday night, the Lakers got stomped by the Grizzlies. Kobe Bryant took twice as many shots as any of his teammates -- his first "Bad Kobe" game of the season -- and walked off the court before the final buzzer. Dwight Howard talked about dealing with the fact he and Pau Gasol didn't get many touches, and Gasol seemed ready for his annual soliloquy on how he should get the ball more. The next day, the Lakers avenged their opening-night loss to Dallas by pasting the Mavericks, which was followed by Gasol letting Mike D'Antoni know he doesn't respond to criticism in interviews. Where did he make this known? In an interview.

Bottom line -- unless D'Antoni figures out how to get the most out of Los Angeles' bigs, his time on the Lakers bench will be a failure. Having the best pair of post players in the league remains the Lakers' greatest advantage, even though D'Antoni has never shown an interest in featuring play on the block. Howard has to get healthier, but he's indispensable. If D'Antoni plans to make Gasol into a face-up power forward, then he'll get even less out of the Spaniard than Mike Brown did last season. And don't forget -- that offense would have gotten Brown fired had he not switched to the Princeton scheme that put the last nail in his coffin.

Yeah, this year's gonna be a doozy.

A salute to the Nittany Lions. I've joked about Bill O'Brien leaving Penn State since the NCAA issued its sanctions. But now, with the season over, it's time to give credit to the coach and the team who stuck around after the program's disastrous year. Neither should those who left nor those who stayed be judged for doing what was best for them, but one must respect what the Nittany Lions accomplished in State College. Remember -- there isn't a soul on the field on Satudays who had anything to do with the Sandusky scandal. Those left either got caught up in this or came in to help clean things up, and they overcame a slow start to win eight games. Were it not for the sanctions, they would play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Under trying circumstances, the coach who had to take this toxic task to get his chance to be in charge and players who saw a sinking ship as their best option exceeded the expectations of many. Seeing how things won't get better anytime soon, here's hoping Penn Staters appreciate the good work of the 2012 team. They deserve a round of applause.

A fitting tribute to Jim Tressel. Saturday's Michigan-Ohio State game sealed the Buckeyes' first undefeated season in 10 years, making it fitting that the star at Ohio Stadium was former head coach Jim Tressel. The deposed "Senator" was back at The Horseshoe with Maurice Clarett and the rest of the ‘02 National Champions, and all who saw it will remember how Clarett and his teammates put Tressel on their shoulders to a massive ovation. Some found it all ironic, since Tressel's refusal to report NCAA violations cost him his job and, possibly, this year's Buckeyes a chance at the national championship.

But who really thought Tressel wouldn't be forgiven by now? Yes, Tressel got the Buckeyes on probation, but since when did Ohio become the kind of place that blamed a man for not telling on himself? And when did college football fans stop absolving the sins of their champions? Bud Wilkinson and Barry Switzer both got Oklahoma put on probation, and both have buildings named after them (the former nearly won a seat in the real Senate, and the latter is still known ‘round those parts as "The King"). Woody Hayes can also say the same. This is just the game of college football, a world of which Buckeyes fans seem to have a firm grasp. Ohio State fell briefly, and now it's back with Urban Meyer, leaving no true reason to stay mad (everyone knows this team wasn't going to win the national championship).

Now, let's hope OSU fans can show that same forgiveness to Terrelle Pryor. He doesn't have a national title, but three BCS bowl games -- and a Rose Bowl MVP -- should be enough to turn his mistakes into bygones now that Ohio State has weathered the storm.

Never forget.

Stillbetterthancassel

And to think, the Jets have four weeks left to top this moment of hilarity. Unlike in the standings, I won't count them out on this one, even if Fireman Ed sees nothing funny about any of this.

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