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Notre Dame, the best SEC team not in the SEC

Not only is Notre Dame built very much like the best SEC teams, they win like one, too. Could the Irish compete in the nation's toughest football conference?


Sometimes, in sports media, in a job where one of the duties is "Write an opinion about something," one of the people performing that job gets an opinion so completely wrong that it becomes almost a parallel universe of error unto itself. ESPN's Rick Reilly did that by uncorking this doozy on Notre Dame's insignificance back in August.

Some choice excerpts:

The echoes are in REM sleep. ... But Notre Dame still gets perks and love from the NCAA and BCS as though the year is 1946. ... In short, until Notre Dame football starts winning again, it's Rice to me. ... When did I quit on Notre Dame? When it quit on itself. ... You are not royalty, Notre Dame. Turn in your tiara. ... Coach Brian Kelly is the savior? Really? Because he looks to me like he's doing a very good impression of Bob Davie so far. ... If there's anything we've learned from the Penn State mess, it's that nobody gets to live on a pedestal anymore.

That's staggeringly wrong at this point, and I'm not even talking about playing fast and loose with facts — 1946 sounds like a cool reference point, but the NCAA basically didn't matter until the 1950s, and the BCS obviously wasn't around, given that the first ENIAC machine was announced in 1946 — and perceptions — that "quit on itself" bit is from Notre Dame's 31-17 loss to USC in 2011, and uses a smarmy Matt Barkley quote to tar the Irish for not calling timeouts while USC was running it over on the final drive of that game.

But that logic persists in the debate that will fuel the next month of talk about the part of college football that happens on the field and not on agents' iPhones: Notre Dame is getting short shrift as a great football team because it's Notre Dame and because the SEC is the SEC.

I'm a Florida fan, and I have many Florida fan friends, and I follow many SEC writers, bloggers, and cheerleaders, and I have seen all sorts of outlandish assertions about Notre Dame's assumed inferiority to either the Alabama juggernaut or Mark Richt's excellent Georgia team. Notre Dame would be the seventh-best team in the SEC! Notre Dame is going to lose by 20! The Irish have no offense! These obviously sound points are going to be repeated ad nauseam by:

  • a) people who have no love for Notre Dame, of which there are many
  • b) people who love the SEC, of which there are many
  • c) people who do not fall into either of the above categories, but still have a tremendous amount of respect for the SEC, which has only produced the sport's last six champions and two de facto national championship play-in games in the last four years
  • It will not shock you to learn that these are not among the best-educated or most curious fans of the sport, nor should it stun you to realize that their opinions are probably wrong. I think Notre Dame may just the best team in America — and the best case for that is the one that also holds that Notre Dame is the nation's best SEC-style team.

    There are some common strands in the DNA of those last six SEC titlists. All but 2008 Florida and 2010 Auburn were known as defense-first crews, and even those teams needed their defenses to win low-scoring title games. (That both of those teams had fascinating offenses with lightning-rod figureheads probably helped distract from their defenses.) All of those defenses were predicated on great line play. All of those teams were in the nation's top third in turnover margin. And all of those teams came from somewhere back of the No. 1 spot and got much better as the season went on by testing their mettle against good teams.

    When I look at the teams that resemble those SEC champions in 2012, the most obvious team of the same build is Florida, which won't play for the title because it lost at the wrong time. But the second-closest thing is Notre Dame, which managed to avoid an implosion like the one that killed Florida's chances of playing for a title, and may be even more terrifying on defense than the Gators squad that just allowed fewer points than any Florida team since Lyndon Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater.

    When Kelly came to Notre Dame, it was as a quarterback guru who had turned Tony Pike and Zach Collaros into competent triggermen of a truly great offense. Cincinnati was held under 28 points twice in Kelly's final season in 2009: once against West Virginia, in a game in which Collaros threw most of Cincy's passes and a beat-up Pike threw two touchdowns, and again against Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl ... after Kelly had packed up for South Bend. And Cincy got to 24 in both of those games, though it only made it to 24 in the Sugar Bowl with garbage time scores.

    The Bearcats' defenses, however, were unimpressive, and got worse, allowing 244 points in 2007, 288 in 2008, and 300 in 2009. It was fair to assume, even then, that Kelly was going to get the Irish revved up on offense, but that defense, which had been Notre Dame's Achilles' heel for about a decade, would be what ultimately kept the Domers down.

    That didn't happen. Instead, this did:

  • 2009: No. 63 in scoring defense (25.9 points per game), No. 83 in total defense, 6.19 yards per play
  • 2010: No. 23 in scoring defense (20.2 points per game), No. 51 in total defense, 5.15 yards per play
  • 2011: No. 24 in scoring defense (20.7 points per game), No. 30 in total defense, 5.05 yards per play
  • 2012: No. 2 in scoring defense (10.3 points per play), No. 6 in total defense, 4.55 yards per play
  • Manti Te'o's been around for all of those four years, and he's obviously great, but Notre Dame went from being less than mediocre before Kelly's arrival to good in his first two years to great in this one. And that's got a lot to do with Kelly's right-hand man on defense, Bob Diaco, and the incredible effort Kelly's put into recruiting defensive players.

    Diaco was only Kelly's DC at Cincinnati in 2009, but his effort was tremendous, despite that increase in points: the Bearcats returned one starter on defense from 2008, and didn't really fall off despite that. He then flipped Notre Dame from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in 2010, and immediately brought the Irish up into the top 50 of all four major defensive categories (total, scoring, passing, and rushing defense). He's turned the Irish from a blitzing, gambling bunch to a disciplined, resilient unit, one that doesn't give up big plays (ND's allowed 29 plays of 20+ yards and seven of 30+ yards in 2012, No. 2 nationally in both categories) and makes turnovers happen (23 in 2012 despite a suspiciously low seven fumble recoveries). Notre Dame is especially stingy against the run, allowing just two rushing touchdowns all year.

    That all sounds a lot like an SEC defense, no? The 3-4 is the defense that Alabama and Florida now run, and both Nick Saban and Will Muschamp have their defenses doing the turnovers-and-limited explosives thing Notre Dame is doing (Alabama is No. 1 nationally in plays of 10+ yards conceded, Florida No. 1 in plays of 30+ yards conceded). And Alabama, Florida, and LSU all rank in the top 10 of rushing defense and turnovers gained, too. And Notre Dame's better at sacking the quarterback than those defenses, with 33 sacks on the year; the SEC teams with more than that are South Carolina, which has this Jadeveon Clowney fellow, and Mississippi, which ... well, I can't really explain that beyond nine of its sacks coming against Central Arkansas and UTEP.

    But merely imitating the form of the SEC isn't enough: the way to build an SEC-caliber defense is to recruit SEC-caliber players.

    Notre Dame has done that since Kelly took over. The class of 2010 brough Louis Nix III, Prince Shembo, Bennett Jackson, and Danny Spond; 2011's haul included Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams; and 2012's KeiVirae Russell is starting at cornerback. Te'o is great, and a legitimate Heisman candidate despite his value being hard to gauge, but he's one of only four seniors starting for the Irish on defense (Kapron Lewis-Moore, Dan Fox, and Zeke Motta are the other three), evidence that Kelly's staff has restocked a cupboard that has been bare for years.

    Meanwhile, Notre Dame's finest defensive recruiting prize of the Kelly regime, five-star 2011 end Aaron Lynch, is already gone from South Bend, having fled to USF to get closer to his Gulf Coast home. And Notre Dame's best crop of defenders under Kelly may be the one coming in 2013, when Jaylon Smith and Alex Anzalone make it to campus.

    By contrast, the other side of the ball is almost all holdovers from Charlie Weis' time at Notre Dame: the only sophomores (these would be players almost fully recruited by Kelly et al.) with major roles are Everett Golson and George Atkinson, and the line and receiving corps are almost entirely seniors. Kelly inherited his offense; he and Diaco and his recruiters built the defense, which is better than the offense is.

    Skeptics who, like me, though that Notre Dame spent much of its year getting fat by hunting slow prey had a point, but only up to a certain point: through five games, Notre Dame had beaten only Navy, Michigan State, and Miami convincingly, and none of those teams has more than seven wins right now. (Navy should add its eighth against Army next Saturday.) The Irish escaped Purdue, and got an avalanche of turnovers in a truly boring win over Michigan.

    Then things got a lot rougher for Notre Dame. The Irish had to overcome very good defenses to best Stanford and BYU, proved themselves on the road against Oklahoma, and staged a fine comeback to get to overtime against Pittsburgh. Those wins were all hard-won, two coming over very good teams and two coming as gritty victories that SEC partisans often write off as valuable when LSU beats [insert pretty much any SEC team LSU has beaten this year] or Georgia struggles with Kentucky because every week is a different difficult obstacle in that league.

    And the only team to brownout USC as thoroughly as Notre Dame did was, of course, Stanford — and though the Cardinal did it while Matt Barkley had two functional arms, they did it at home, and Notre Dame's win over them sort of ends that argument before it begins.

    In fairness, too, Notre Dame's schedule presents its own different difficulty. Notre Dame's commitment to being a national brand and a television network's sole standard-bearer has forced it to run the risk of having to run a gauntlet: a schedule featuring Michigan, Miami, Oklahoma, and USC would have been seen as impossibly daunting in 2003, and wasn't exactly easy in 2012. And there's always a chance that a team like Stanford that Notre Dame always had the upper hand on rises up at an inconvenient time.

    Notre Dame's opponents also don't play each other as much as teams in a conference play each other, so coaches can't glean many insights from tape of a yearly foe meeting another team with familiar personnel, and the school's refusal to play FCS teams means the Irish sometimes have to rack up wins over one BCS-league team after another, like they did 11 times in 2012.

    No other team in America has even 10 of those.

    And though the obvious flaw in that argument based on numbers is that they were mostly compiled against the Big Ten and ACC, Notre Dame's riposte involves pointing at two wins over teams (Oklahoma and Stanford) that could go to BCS bowls. That's more than Alabama (none), Georgia (Florida), Florida (Florida State), Oregon (none), Kansas State (Oklahoma), Florida State (none), and Ohio State (none) currently have. Stanford's beaten Oregon and UCLA, but, if Stanford gets in, then UCLA won't be a BCS team anyway.

    Notre Dame has a defense that resembles those of the SEC's finest recent teams, and a resume that looks more like Florida's than Ohio State's. And yet the Irish will still be underdogs in that BCS National Championship Game, and would apparently be underdogs to most of the SEC. Reilly's relegation's actually happened in spirit, if not structurally: no one seems to want to favor the Irish against an SEC team.

    You can write off Notre Dame as a team walking into a thresher if you want. Ignore all the words you just read, ignore that Everett Golson's got more than a little Johnny Manziel in him, ignore that Tyler Eifert might be the best player on the field (Jarvis Jones excepted) when Notre Dame is on offense in that title game, and ignore that writing off one team as a heavy underdog definitely didn't work when it happened to Ohio State in 2002 and Florida in 2006.

    But don't be surprised when the Notre Dame you see in January looks a lot like the SEC teams that fought it out to meet the Irish in Miami. And don't be surprised if Irish eyes are smiling on South Beach at the end of that night.

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