Notre Dame wasn’t even ranked in the 2012 AP preseason poll but somehow managed to survive the regular season without a loss and make the BCS title game.
Sure, the Irish wound up getting blitzed by Alabama 42-14 in the championship, but still they got there, and the truth is many folks didn’t see them coming.
As the 2013 season approaches, it’s intriguing to consider whether any team will be able make a similar jump. More specifically, could Texas or Nebraska be that team?
To answer this question, first it’s key to look back at the Irish’s identity coming into 2012 and then compare it to the Cornhuskers' and Longhorns' this season.
The Fighting Irish came into 2012 off a disappointing 8-5 finish that began with expectations of a BCS bid.
Notre Dame returned 15 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Everett Golson, and six on defense. In his ranking of teams based on their level of experience, Phil Steele had Notre Dame 64th.
The 2012 Fighting Irish were built on—per Rivals.com rankings—a senior class that was ranked No. 21 when signed in 2009, a junior class that ranked No. 14 in 2010, a sophomore class that ranked No. 10 in 2011 and a freshman class that was ranked No. 22.
Notre Dame’s average recruiting ranking among the four classes was No. 17.
The ’11 Irish didn’t dazzle statistically, ranking No. 49 nationally in scoring offense and No. 24 in scoring defense.
The high point statistically was a No. 4 finish in passing offense, and the low point a No. 118 rating in turnover margin.
To summarize, the Irish’s numbers coming into 2012 weren’t overwhelming, and they were predicted to be on the periphery of the Top 25.
The Cornhuskers finished 2012 with a 10-4 record and got lambasted by Wisconsin 70-31 in the Big Ten championship game.
For 2013, Nebraska returns 13 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Taylor Martinez, and four on defense. Steele ranked the Cornhuskers’ experience level as No. 86.
This season’s Huskers have a senior class that was recruited at No. 22 in 2010, a junior class that came in at No. 15 in 2011, a sophomore class that was signed at No. 25 in 2012 and a freshman class that was ranked No. 17.
Nebraska’s average recruiting ranking in 2013 is No. 20.
Last season’s team was ranked No. 28 in scoring offense and No. 58 in scoring defense.
High points statistically were a No. 8 ranking in rushing offense and a No. 4 ranking in passing defense. Low points included a No. 91 ranking in pass offense, a No. 92 ranking in rushing defense and a No. 101 ranking in turnover margin.
The Cornhuskers will likely be ranked in the neighborhood of No. 20 to No. 25 in the official preseason rankings when they debut in mid-August.
Texas finished the 2012 season with a 9-4 record, which included a 31-27 win over Oregon State in the Alamo Bowl.
The Longhorns return 19 starters in 2013, a number that ranks No. 1 nationally. Ten members of the offense, including quarterback David Ash, and nine members of the defense return.
Steele has Texas ranked as the most experienced team in the nation this season.
The 2013 Longhorns are built on a senior class that ranked No. 3 in 2010, a junior class that ranked No. 3 in 2011, a sophomore class that ranked No. 2 and a freshman class that signed at No. 23.
Texas’ average recruiting rank in 2013 is No. 8.
The ’12 Longhorns ranked No. 23 in scoring offense and No. 72 in scoring defense.
The statistical low was a No. 90 ranking in rush defense.
Texas is expected to be a Top 15 team coming into this season.
Which Team is More Likely to be Notre Dame?
There are at least two angles when predicting whether Nebraska or Texas will be 2013’s version of the Fighting Irish.
And both point to the Huskers.
First, Nebraska is more like Notre Dame in 2013 because it is flying under the radar to a much greater degree than Texas.
Before the 2012 season, the Irish were expected to be a low Top-25 contender in the same way that the Huskers are this year.
Texas, on the other hand, is expected to win the Big 12 and make a BCS run, and could easily be in the preseason AP Top 15 or even Top 10.
This means that the ’13 Cornhuskers are more like the ’12 Irish because of the element of surprise.
Second, Nebraska and Notre Dame share a key statistical component between the two seasons, turnover margin.
Where Notre Dame’s 2011 season was defined by a No. 118 national ranking in turnover margin, Nebraska’s 2012 campaign was underscored by a No. 108 ranking.
This makes the argument that if the Huskers can improve their ranking to No. 29 in 2013—the Irish’s final turnover ranking in 2012—then Nebraska could transform a 10-4 finish to a 14-0 mark.
The turnover ranking is key because it makes a case for Nebraska’s defense being better than it was on paper. The performance against the run would have improved if the offense had been able to hold onto the ball.
Overall, the ’13 Longhorns look a bit more like the ’12 Irish on paper—with less highs and lows statistically—but this is misleading.
Texas is built to be a BCS contender this season—complete with returning starters, high recruiting rankings, etc.—while Nebraska is a good team not expected to be great.
This approach makes Texas look less like Notre Dame and more like the 2013 version of 2012’s Florida State or USC.