Heisman Trophy front-runner Manti Te'o may be garnering most of the credit for Notre Dame's surprising success this season, and rightfully so, but there are a handful of lesser-known game-changers who have helped lead the Fighting Irish back to the BCS National Championship Game.
On both sides of the ball, there have been tone-setting players that have been key for Brian Kelly's squad in 2012, and who will ultimately determine whether the Irish complete their perfect season with a national title.
Let's take a look at five game-changers vital to a Notre Dame BCS National Championship victory this January.
Theo Riddick is Notre Dame's leading rusher and third-leading receiver by receptions this season, and will be vital to the Irish's offensive success in their upcoming national title tilt.
The senior running back has touched the ball 215 times in 12 games this season, racking up more than 1,200 total yards of offense and six touchdowns.
Riddick is averaging nearly five yards per carry and a shade over 10 yards per reception this season, which makes him a threat to reel off big plays as well as score in a variety of ways.
No other Notre Dame player besides quarterback Everett Golson touches the ball as often as Riddick on offense. He averages 18 touches per game and will likely have more opportunities than any other Irish playmaker to impact the outcome of this winter's title game.
Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson is without question Notre Dame's best player in the secondary.
Jackson has played in all 12 games for the Irish this season, and is the team's second-leading tackler behind Manti Te'o and trails only Te'o for most Irish interceptions this season. Jackson has four picks, including two against Purdue back in September.
At 6'1", Jackson has an added advantage against big receivers, and should be able to shut down his man in man-to-man situations this January. His five tackles for a loss this season also speak to his ability to help out in the running game for Notre Dame, which will be critical against whichever team the Irish face.
Whether it's making a momentum-shifting interception or a crucial tackle in the backfield, Bennett Jackson's strong play will be vital to Notre Dame's championship success.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt has been a human wrecking ball for Notre Dame all season long, and is a huge reason why the Irish have been so dominant on the defensive side of the ball in 2012.
The sophomore from Georgia has an ideal frame for the position as well, at 6'6" and 300 pounds. Tuitt has played in all 12 games this season. He leads the team in sacks and tackles for a loss with 11.
He's only gone sack-less in four games this season and displayed his athleticism and ability to change a game with a 77-yard fumble return touchdown in the Irish's season opener against Navy.
With Tuitt lining up opposite of fellow defensive end and 2013 NFL draft prospect Kapron Lewis-Moore, expect Notre Dame's defensive line to make some crucial stops and plays in the backfield. Tuitt's pressure in the pass rush is also sure to be disruptive.
Senior tight end Tyler Eifert has hands-down been the Irish's best pass-catcher this season and No. 1 red-zone threat in passing situations.
The 6'6", 250-pound stud athlete is seen by most experts as the second-best tight end prospect coming out of college football this year behind Stanford's Zach Ertz. In 12 games this fall, Eifert has caught 44 balls for 624 yards and four touchdowns. He leads all Notre Dame receivers in each of those categories.
With sophomore quarterback Everett Golson set to take on the best defense he's seen all year in the championship game, he'll definitely be looking to get the ball to his play-making tight end early and often.
In time, Eifert will develop into an excellent NFL player. However, the best news for the Irish is that they will have his services for one last game, and how fitting that it's the most important game of Eifert's college career.
Notre Dame's line-clogging defensive tackle, Louis Nix III, will be vital to the Irish front seven's success against whichever team they play this January.
The junior is awfully tough to move at 6'3", 325 pounds, and is more athletic than he appears. Nix has 45 tackles, including 5.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. Nix's presence up front for the Irish is a true game-changer. Running on Notre Dame becomes nearly impossible when Nix is anchoring the defensive line, while finding time to drop back and pass is just as difficult.
Nix's strength has helped him break up five passes this season and pressure the quarterback on countless occasions.
As has been the case all season, expect Nix's presence up front to allow players like Manti Te'o to excel cleaning up in the run game and dropping back in coverage. A player like Louis Nix III may not always show up on the stat sheet, but without him and the four other aforementioned game changers, the Irish wouldn't be 12-0 and gearing up to play for the BCS National Championship Game this January.
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