While college football fans live for the pageantry and beauty of the sport, the true infrastructure of any team, the defense, tends to be vastly overlooked. Such was the case during the Charlie Weis era at Notre Dame—a five-year stretch in which defense took a backseat to a high-flying, high-scoring offense.
Weis and his coaching staff were able to attract top-flight offensive talent, such as quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd. But because so much of the coaching staff's attention was spent on the offensive side of the ball, the Irish missed out on a number of elite defensive prospects during those five seasons, save for Manti Te'o.
The scene in South Bend changed drastically when Brian Kelly was hired as head coach, with an emphasis on defense not seen since Lou Holtz was leading the Irish nearly 20 years ago. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco gave life to an Irish defense that had largely been a doormat for opposing offenses during the Weis era.
Last season, Kelly's second at Notre Dame, the Irish ranked 47th nationally in rush defense, surrendering an average of 138.92 yards per game. That showing was a significant improvement from Weis' last season in South Bend, when his defense yielded an average of 170.3 rushing yards per game.
With an extraordinarily talented and stout front seven returning for the 2012 season, the Irish rush defense has a chance to finish as a top-25 unit nationally this season.
That won't be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, though. Kelly and Co. are facing a gauntlet of a schedule that CBSSports.com college football writer Bruce Feldman pegged as the country's most difficult slate of games.
The Irish will be forced to stop a slew of high-octane offenses this season, with the likes of Michigan, USC and Oklahoma awaiting.
The good news for the Irish is the run-stopping ability of the aforementioned front seven, led by All-American linebacker Manti Te'o and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Should that group make opposing offenses one-dimensional, wins will be easier to come by.
Unfortunately, the Irish secondary will be a terrifyingly young unit, with no starting experience at either cornerback position.
Whether or not starting cornerbacks Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson can hold up over the duration of a 12-game regular season remains to be seen. In the back of their minds, thoughts of elite starting quarterbacks on the schedule—Denard Robinson, Matt Barkley and Landry Jones come to mind—are likely haunting them.
However, if Wood and Jackson perfect the art of bending but not breaking, this season's Irish defense will rise to the occasion against the nation's most brutal schedule.
Kelly's squad will also need that famous "luck of the Irish" to avoid devastating injuries to key players like Te'o, Tuitt or veteran safety Jamoris Slaughter.
The formula for success in any phase of life includes hard work and a little bit of luck every now and again. The Irish defense exemplifies that formula.
Plus, Notre Dame is due for a few lucky bounces its way.