No matter what other team ends up in the BCS national championship game to face Notre Dame—whether it's Georgia or Alabama—it's going to be a battle.
In Notre Dame, we have one of the best defensive teams in the nation. We have a team that has not been beaten in 2012, though it has been close on a couple of occasions. And yet we have a team that—despite being the No. 1 team in the nation—is being billed as the clear underdog, regardless of its opponent.
If the Irish face Alabama, they'll face an opponent that is just as good as they are defensively and also has a top-15 offense. If the Irish face Georgia, they'll face an opponent that is strong—albeit not as strong—defensively as well as one that will have beaten three of the top 10 teams in the nation.
Here's a look at the Irish's strengths and weaknesses as the national championship approaches.
Strength: Holding on down the stretch
Lots of good teams have no problem winning in blowouts, but they can't quite hold on in the face of a bit more adversity. Notre Dame is not one of those teams. In fact, the Irish's season has been marked by several games in which defensive stands were the key to victory.
One of those games was last week at USC. Lane Kiffin's horrendous play-calling aside, it took a lot of defensive fortitude for Notre Dame to be able to hold on for the win: The Trojans were driving with six minutes remaining in the game, and a key fourth-down stop by the Irish helped to seal the deal. Another of those resilience-testers was at Oklahoma, when—in the midst of a game that was excruciatingly close—the Irish forced a key turnover in the waning minutes to put the game out of the Sooners' reach.
This is a team that held on in triple-overtime against Pittsburgh. That takes mental, physical and emotional toughness, and it also takes a stellar defense. Not many teams can avoid fourth-quarter mistakes, even if they are among the top teams in the nation—and the Irish can. That speaks to their experience, discipline and coaching.
Obviously, defense has been the Irish's saving grace all season. Led by Heisman candidate (and likely winner) Manti Te'o, this team is one step away from proving, once again, that defense wins championships.
Overall, the Irish are second in the nation in points allowed with 10.3 They boast one shutout this season and have allowed an average of just under a touchdown over their last three games.
Te'o, especially, has had a knack for coming up with a turnover at the perfect time, and in addition to leading this defense on the field, the senior linebacker—who put off the NFL to return to Notre Dame for his senior year—is the heart and soul of the team off the field.
If the Irish face Alabama in the national championship, however, they will be facing the only team in the nation with a better defense.
Weakness: Offensive output
Whether they face Alabama or Georgia in the championship, offense is going to be a problem for the Irish—but especially if they face Alabama. The Irish have been able to triumph over teams with strong offenses but weaker defenses (Oklahoma, USC), but Alabama will present the absolute toughest test the Irish could possibly face this season.
Not only are the Crimson Tide better than the Irish defensively, but their offense is one of the best in the nation. In their last two games, they've scored 49 points and allowed zero. Against ranked opponents this season, the Crimson Tide have averaged 31 points per game. The Irish, by comparison, have averaged 20.75.
When a team that has already struggled offensively runs into the best defense in the nation, it could prove to be disastrous—especially if the team with the best defense has a top-15 offense, too. ND either needs to figure out how to score on Alabama or hope for Georgia.
Many of Notre Dame's strengths are intangibles, but two of the most significant intangibles a championship team needs to have are among the Irish's weaknesses. One of them is postseason experience. This is going to prove to be much more of a problem for the Irish if they end up having to face Alabama, a team that was playing for the national title just one year ago.
Last season, the Crimson Tide entered the national championship game against the No. 1 team in the BCS—a team that had also gone unbeaten during regular-season play.
Sounds familiar, no?
The result of that game was a 21-0 shutout of the LSU Tigers. The Crimson Tide—and quarterback AJ McCarron—know how to pull off an upset over the nation's top team. They know what it's like to conquer the pressure of appearing in the national championship against a team that hasn't lost. The Irish, and quarterback Everett Golson, have no experience in either of those categories.
The other intangible that is always useful for a championship team to have is knowing how to bounce back from a loss. Going undefeated is a tremendous accomplishment, and college teams have certainly been able to do it and cap it off with a national championship. Auburn did it two years ago. But Auburn also had the best quarterback, and the best player, in the nation two years ago.
Often, top teams that have lost have better grasps of their weaknesses when those weaknesses have been exposed. When Alabama fell to Texas A&M this season, it became well aware that when faced with Johnny Football and his high-octane offense, its defense paled in comparison. It also learned precisely what not to do when a game comes down to the wire.
Notre Dame's offense has been tested in crunch time, but never by a team of Alabama's or Georgia's caliber. And being tested by a team like that, even if it ends in defeat, is incredibly valuable.