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)