Notre Dame has been a force this season, starting 4-0 in their first four games
In the past few years, Notre Dame has fallen from a perennial national title contender to a vastly overrated and under-performing pretender. This year, the Fighting Irish have already taken down preseason Big Ten favorites Michigan and Michigan State and are off to their best start since 2002 at 4-0.
Can Notre Dame keep up their improved play against the likes of Stanford, Oklahoma, and USC later this season? Here are four players who can make or break the rest of Notre Dame's season:
LB Manti Te'o
Te'o is Notre Dame's undisputed leader and best player on either side of the ball. He chose to forgo the NFL draft last year, where he would've been most likely been a first-round pick.
Te'o has strength, speed and great instincts. He has used his physical ability and football intelligence to anchor what has been the third-best defense in the country, allowing only nine points per game. Te'o has intercepted three balls in four games and made 36 tackles.
What has been most impressive about Te'o, however, is his character. Just 21 years old, Manti Te'o had to handle the tragic losses of his grandmother and his girlfriend within 48 hours of each other early in September.
While most people would take time to grieve and forget football, Te'o had his best game of the season against Michigan State that weekend, recording a season-high in tackles (12) and passes defended (2).
Who is Notre Dame's most important player?
Te'o is Notre Dame's most important player for the remainder of the season, as their top-ranked defense will rise and fall with its unquestioned leader.
QB Everett Golson
Head coach Brian Kelly made a very risky decision to start sophomore QB Everett Golson over the experienced veteran Tommy Rees this season. Over the first two games, Golson was efficient and reliable, completing roughly two-thirds of his passes for over 400 yards and two touchdowns.
Over his next two games, however, Golson didn't look nearly as good. He completed only 42.5% of his passes for a combined 208 yards and two interceptions.
In fact, he was so bad during the game against Michigan that he was pulled in favor of Rees at the end of the first half. Rees went on to lead the Irish to victory, but Coach Kelly said that he will still stick with Golson as his starter going forward.
For Notre Dame to build upon their great start, Golson will have to look a lot more like he did over the first two games than he did over the most recent two games. If he continues to be inefficient, the offense will struggle to move the ball against some of the better defenses that the Irish have on their schedule in the near future.
S Zeke Motta
If anyone else on the Notre Dame defense could be considered a leader other than Manti Te'o, it's Zeke Motta. Motta leads a very young and inexperienced Irish secondary that includes two converted wide receivers and one converted running back who also happens to be a freshman.
The defense has relied heavily on Motta over their first three games and will continue to throughout the season as Matthias Farley, Keivarae Russell and Bennett Jackson continue to adjust to their new positions at cornerback and safety.
Motta's steadiness and reliability (he has never missed a game over the course of his career at Notre Dame) will be huge for the Irish secondary this season.
TE Tyler Eifert
Eifert has been a stud for Notre Dame in his career, racking up the second-most career receptions and receiving yards of any tight end in Notre Dame history. He was a preseason All-American in 2012, but has not been incorporated into the offense as much as he should be.
In his first two games, he racked up eight receptions for 120 yards and a touchdown. Over the second two games, he had a grand total of one reception for 38 yards.
It's unsurprising that QB Everett Golson was much more efficient and reliable while targeting his star tight end rather than looking to the more questionable Notre Dame receiving corps.
For a young quarterback like Golson, it is vital that he targets Eifert and includes him in the offense for the remainder of the season. Doing so will increase offensive efficiency, free up the running game for Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood and give the Notre Dame defense some breathing room against better offenses.
If these four players maintain high levels of play for the remainder of the season, there is no reason to believe that the Notre Dame Fighting Irish won't be in the conversation for a BCS Bowl bid at the end of the season.