Keeping Score

How Notre Dame Has Lifted College Football

Led by Manti T'eo, a Heisman candidate at linebacker, the Fighting Irish have flourished

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Fans celebrate with Notre Dame wide receiver Chris Brown after the team defeated USC in an NCAA college-football game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 2012.

Let’s face it: it’s good to have the Irish back.

Notre Dame earned a trip to the BCS national-championship game on Saturday night by beating the University of Southern California in Los Angeles 22-13. (Notre Dame fans should send a Christmas card to USC coach Lane Kiffin, whose play calling at the end of the game was beyond atrocious). The Fighting Irish finished the season 12-0; they will face the winner of next week’s Southeastern Conference championship game, between Alabama and Georgia, in the championship on Jan. 7, 2013, in Miami.

Much like the New York Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys and Duke’s basketball team, Notre Dame football tends to inspire strong feelings. You either get caught up in the pageantry and tradition — the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, “Win one for the Gipper,” Rudy — and pull for Notre Dame, or you think it’s all overwrought and relish rooting against the Irish.

If Notre Dame actually won as much as the Yankees or Duke in recent years, this year’s run wouldn’t merit much surprise. But the Irish haven’t played for the national championship in 24 years. The team entered this season unranked in the Associated Press poll. It may seem impossible to call a team that has its own national television contract, like Notre Dame does with NBC, an underdog. But Notre Dame has been plucky all season. Sure, the team has gotten lucky: Kiffin melted down on Saturday; a missed field goal and a controversial pass-interference call helped Notre Dame survive Pittsburgh, 29-26, in three overtimes; and Stanford probably got shafted in its 20-13 overtime loss to Notre Dame in October. Still, you have to respect what Notre Dame has accomplished this season. Key goal-line stands against Stanford and USC, for example, were epic.

(MORE: Maryland and Rutgers Bolt for the Big 10: Are These College Conference Shake-Ups Worth It?)

College football needs no popularity boost right now. The sport is booming, and with a long-awaited playoff system being introduced in 2014, things will only get better. But without question, Notre Dame’s success raises the profile of college football, and this upcoming title game, to even higher levels. The Notre Dame mystique brings in more casual fans. The team’s nickname, the Fighting Irish, remains one of the most ingenious sports marketing moves of the past 100 years — not that sports marketing was on anyone’s minds when the school officially adopted the nickname in 1927. If Notre Dame were, say, the Wildcats, would anyone really care? Notre Dame draws Irish Catholic fans from all over the U.S. but particularly from the populous Northeast, in cities like New York and Boston. This region wouldn’t normally be as invested in the college-football title game, which, for the most part, has featured teams from the Southeast — and occasionally the Midwest, Southwest and West Coast — since its inception after the 1998 season.

Notre Dame’s revival after a decade of mostly mediocrity had to come at some point. One reason to be cheerful that it’s happening now: the team’s star linebacker, Manti Te’o, who passed on entering the NFL draft and making guaranteed millions so he could return for his senior season — and put himself in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Te’o, who is from Hawaii, is the emotional core of the team and has endured unspeakable heartache this year. His grandfather, his grandmother, a baby cousin and his girlfriend (who was battling leukemia) all passed away. While dealing with his own grief, Te’o wrote an emotional letter to the parents of a 12-year-old girl dying of brain cancer. By all accounts, Te’o is a model student-athlete in an era when the student part is devalued in college sports.

“If a guy like Manti Te’o is not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said after the team held off USC. “Just give it to the offensive player every year, and let’s just cut to the chase. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week.”

Te’o may miss out on the Heisman. Voting against Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, otherwise known as Johnny Football, who just set a record for most total yards in one season by a Southeastern Conference player, won’t be easy. But if Te’o doesn’t win it, and if Notre Dame falls to Alabama or Georgia, Irish fans shouldn’t get distraught. Te’o and his team have given college football a dream season.

(MORE: A Brief History of the Heisman Trophy)

17 comments
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jasmith4
jasmith4

Re Manti Te'o:  WHO CARES??  Has no one until now been duped by an on-line "girl"?  NO one??  20 kids shot up in Connecticut, American hostages in Algeria -- hell, I even care more about Subway's 11-inch "foot-long"!  Would everyone who cares PLEASE find that rock under which the Mayan-calendar idiots have skulked and join them?  And don't come out to vote!  Ever!  WHO in HELL CARES???

DavidMcCarthy
DavidMcCarthy

Maybe only teams that graduate 80% of their football players should be able to play.

TreyPeters-Peters
TreyPeters-Peters

Did TIME force you to write a positive story about ND and this is your best effort? The insipidness and disgust you mention that the Irish were just lucky to beat Pitt, SC, Stan, et al is ridiculous

Dave78
Dave78

The delightful irony in this is that star Manti Te'o is actually Mormon.

suzyroger7
suzyroger7 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I hate them too but they began the season playing the toughest schedule in collge football.

Any questions?  They deserve to be number 1.

And it is about time that we give some attention to college football as it should be played and not illiterate hillbillies from the SEC.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@suzyroger7 Ummm, sorry but Florida played the toughest schedule.  And I'm going with either Bama or Georgia over the always overrated Domers.

jmartellaro
jmartellaro

Bowling Green???   Louisiana-WHO???   Jacksonville WHAT???   Misery (sorry, I mean...  The marching Kazoo)???   Kentucky???

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@jmartellaro Try Georgia BCS #3, LSU BCS #7, Texas A&M BCS #9, South Carolina BCS #10 and Florida State BCS # 13 (after Florida beat them last Sat.)     Now lets see....the Domers played Michigan BCS #19, Stanford BCS #8, Oklahoma BCS#11 and....and.....and that's it folks.  Now you know.

AveryKatz
AveryKatz like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'm sorry, but this is ridiculous, the Irish do not in any way deserve a CHANCE at the National championship. Lets face it, the toughest team they played was Stanford... It'll be nice to see the wake up call both them and their conference get when they get absolubetly destroyed by an SEC team. Six crystal balls in a row... time to make it seven.

penny.carolin
penny.carolin

@AveryKatz they had a tougher schedule than Alabama or Georgia .... Also beat 9 Bowl eligible teams..Alabama beat 5 and Georgia 4.

Efrosty
Efrosty

Umm... that's not Chris Brown. That's Bennett Jackson...

jmartellaro
jmartellaro like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Fighting Irish was not a marketing ploy.  The name was given by Robt E Lee to the NY Fighting 69th who had stopped him charge after charge. Fr Corby the chaplin of the 69th (and later head chaplin of the Union Army) and was a priest on leave from Notre Dame to serve in the Union Army.  A statue of him blessing the 69th prior to battle is on the battlefield at Gettysburg where he blessed the 69th. A twin of the statue (referred to as 'Fair Catch Corby') is on the Notre Dame campus in front of Corby Hall, the priests' residence.  Fr Corby was a combat veteren. When he returned from the war he resumed his campus priestly duties and later was twice named president of Notre Dame.  He also brought back the derisive but respectful nickname that Gen Lee had given to the 69th.  The name was adopted as their nickname by the University, a school of Catholic imigrants many of them Irish.

jmartellaro
jmartellaro like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Stanford shafted???  No!!!     The played ended with the forward progress stopped. The ref was running in, blowing his whistle, and gesturing that the play was over. It was only then when the play was over and when two key ND players jumped up out of the scrum that the Stanford running back was able to twist and move the ball over the goal line.

Putting the ball over the goal line AFTER the play IS OVER is not getting screwed; it is coming with too little too late.

Actuary
Actuary like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@jmartellaro 

Even if the ref didn't blow his whistle and forward progress was not deemed stop, watch the reply, the runner's elbow was on the ground before he reached the ball over the goal line.

After reviewing the play, let alone the official review by Big East officials after the game, not one complaint from Stanford.

His elbow was down before he reached the ball over, way after his progress was stopped and the ref blew the whistle.

Stanford did not get shafted.


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