Notre Dame Football: Why the Irish Are BCS National Championship Contenders

Connor KillorenSenior Analyst IApril 23, 2013

Apr 20, 2013; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly waits to lead his team onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

As Theo Riddick darted into the end zone at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to put the Irish ahead of then eighth-ranked Oklahoma, 30-13, ABC announcer Brent Musburger spewed a comment that hadn't been uttered during the post-Lou Holtz era.

"Let me be loud and clear; the Irish are relevant once again."

That utterance from Musburger, along with Notre Dame's resounding victory against Oklahoma, were the catalysts of the shock waves that ripped through the college football landscape nine weeks into the 2012 college football season.

Four victories later, and Musburger's belief about the Irish's place in college football was validated.

For the first time in 24 long, arduous years, Notre Dame had reached the peak of the college football world: the national title game.

A program that had reached historically catastrophic lows under the direction of former head coach Charlie Weis (see 2007) and had become a proverbial doormat was now what felt like light years removed from those dark ages.

During those times, any preseason discussion of the Irish's chances at reaching the BCS plateau were scoffed at and mocked. Fans of the Irish were verbally berated on message boards across the Internet for attempting to make even the feeblest arguments in favor of their beloved school.

The atmosphere has since changed, as, for the first time since the early 1990s, Notre Dame is a legitimate title contender.

The program has earned its way into the forefront of the discussion through the one common trait of every BCS National Championship participant: Defense.

During the Irish's run to the 2012 title game, their defense was the catalyst to a meeting with SEC champion Alabama at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Despite suffering a disheartening 42-14 defeat to Alabama in the previously mentioned title game, the Irish still finished the season ranked seventh nationally in total defense, 11th in rushing defense and 27th in turnover margin.

Eight starters from that stalwart defense return in 2013, most notably in the ferocious front seven that head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco have built during their first three seasons on the job in South Bend, Ind.

Linebackers Danny Spond, Prince Shembo and Dan Fox will join nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt to form one of the nation's most formidable defensive fronts in the nation.

However, other names are worthy of inclusion, most notably defensive end Sheldon Day—the sophomore will fill Kapron Lewis-Moore's vacant starting position—and linebacker Ishaq Williams, who has been cross-training at defensive end.

Now, of course, a brick wall of a front seven doesn't guarantee defensive success, but it can provided an effective and experienced secondary is operating behind it.

KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson, last season's starting cornerbacks are back for another go-round in 2013, as is strong safety Matthias Farley. Last year at this time, the secondary was considered, perhaps, the weakest link of the team, but has since evolved into a strength.

The end result?

The front seven won't be burdened with the responsibility of masking a vulnerable secondary.

The true concern regarding the Irish's hopes of a return trip to the BCS National Championship Game resides on the offensive side of the ball.

The Irish coaching staff has been tasked with replacing starters at center, right guard, slot receiver, running back and tight end.

Fortunately, the question marks at center and slot receiver have been erased, as Nick Martin and C.J. Prosise have filled those positions, respectively.

How the other position battles iron out will provide a clearer view of the Irish offense, which will be led by second-year starting quarterback Everett Golson. The Myrtle Beach, S.C., native has a few critics around the country, particularly here at Bleacher Report, but in this humble writer's opinion, he'll be the Irish's starter for the next three seasons barring injury, suspension or any other unexpected occurrence. 

Yes, ultra-talented freshman Malik Zaire has gained the praise of the masses, but praise doesn't win a player a job, and is also a discussion for a different day. 

For now, Golson and Kelly's up-tempo offense, paired with a championship-caliber defense, is a formula for a trip to Pasadena, Calif., in January 2014.