When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish come walk into next Saturday's contest against the Miami Hurricanes a top-10 team for the first time since 2006, there will be a cavalcade of things to celebrate in South Bend.
Head coach Brian Kelly has led a team with low expectations to victories over ranked opponents in Michigan and Michigan State while touting one of the nation's best defenses. With a 4-0 record and just three games against ranked schools going forward, a BCS bowl berth is no longer out of the question.
However, as we draw closer to the season's midpoint, there are some weaknesses that could hurt Notre Dame's cause going forward. Here is a look at the team's biggest drawbacks, followed by a look at the team's strengths that could help mitigate those deficiencies.
Quarterback/Brian Kelly's Handling of Situation
A week after handling the vaunted Michigan State defense on the road, Everett Golson folded against a far weaker Michigan unit in the first big home game of his career.
The redshirt freshman completed just 3-of-8 passes for 30 yards and two interceptions before being pulled early in the second quarter for Tommy Rees, the incumbent starter who was suspended for the season opener following an arrest.
Behind a conservative attack, Rees efficiently guided the Irish offense, completing 8-of-11 attempts for 115 yards, as Notre Dame again pulled off a hard-nosed victory.
Regardless of the result, Kelly's squad is the only team in the Top 10 currently in the midst of a quarterback "controversy."
What the Irish coach has to realize is that this is no longer a season full of low expectations. Going into 2012, the Notre Dame faithful would have been happy with an 8-4 season and some promising signs heading into next season.
Now, as the 10th-ranked team, there are BCS expectations. Beating two high-profile, top-ranked rivals will do that. While quarterback will not be the defining position on whether that becomes a success, this trend of playing quarterback musical chairs could single-handedly submarine the team's effort.
Kelly needs to choose Golson or Rees and stick with that decision barring injury or abject ineffectiveness.
Coming into the season, the Irish were returning three of their five offensive linemen, and the unit looked shored up with veteran replacements for departed players.
Well, that simply hasn't been the case.
While fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr. has taken the brunt of the scorn for his ineffectiveness, the line as a whole consistently puts the Notre Dame offense in bad spots. The unit allowed five sacks against Purdue and failed to live up to its preseason billing.
However, it is the offensive line's inability to create holes for Theo Riddick or Cierre Wood that is disconcerting going forward.
Neither Irish quarterback will be able to put the team on his back and win the game, meaning a grind-it-out style is necessary. Without productive runners, an offense cannot create a time-of-possession advantage, which leaves the defense to once again single-handedly bring home victory.
That can work in the interim, but it will come back to bite the Irish down the line if these problems go unfixed.
There are almost no superlatives available to adequately depict how brilliant Manti Te'o and the defense has been thus far.
Playing against two ranked opponents with big preseason dreams, the Irish systematically shut down the Spartans and Wolverines just like Purdue and Navy before them. It was almost as if the entire unit was completely unfazed by the level of competition.
Praise for that top-tier performance starts first and foremost with Te'o, who has been worthy of Heisman consideration this season. With 36 total tackles, the senior linebacker has lived up every bit to his preseason hype and made every play when his team needed it. Te'o's two interceptions against Michigan helped seal the deal on Denard Robinson's nightmare last week while keeping the pressure off of the offense.
Nevertheless, it's not just Te'o that's been fantastic this season. Prince Shembo has done a great job of getting in on plays and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, while Dan Fox has stepped in and provided more senior leadership.
Simply put, if there is one unit deserving of the most praise on Notre Dame's roster, it's the linebackers.
Though it would be easy to point out the brilliance of the defensive line, the secondary deserves its time in the spotlight as well for completely outperforming all expectations.
After a rash of injuries put the Irish in an awful spot coming into the season, youthful replacements have stepped in and done an admirable job.
The team's four interceptions against Denard Robinson are well documented, as the Michigan Heisman Trophy candidate struggled all game to find a rhythm.
Nonetheless, the Irish have their scintillating front seven to thank more than anything for their strong play against the pass.
Having experience and talent on and around the line has allowed Notre Dame to drop back five or six guys on almost every play. That is something the Irish were unable to do last season, and it has allowed for a full-fledged masking of the secondary's inexperience.
Now, with the secondary slowly rounding into shape, the Irish may finally be able to bring the heat against experienced signal-callers like USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
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