Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly's Third Year Could Be Special for Irish

Mike MuratoreCorrespondent IOctober 1, 2012

Feb. 1, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly speaks at a press conference for national signing day at the Guglielmnio Athletics Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

Things just never go as planned.

A year ago, Notre Dame opened to BCS hype and 10-win expectations with what was supposed to be an upperclassmen-laden team and a relatively wea schedule.

As it turned out, the Irish couldn't hang onto the football, the schedule looked easier on paper than it turned out to be and every break went the wrong way.

The team finished 8-5 and out of the rankings.

This year seems to be an inverse situation.

Expectations were low. Notre Dame started on the outside of the AP top 25 and seemed to face an impossible slate of games.

Most picked five or six losses, and almost all who pick winners and losers predicted losses to both Michigan State and Michigan.

A year ago at this point, Notre Dame was 2-2 and had committed 19 turnovers, stumbling out of the gate and falling out of serious BCS contention.

This year, the Irish are on the positive side of the ledger, up nine turnovers and having beaten a pair of top 25 opponents in then No. 9 Michigan State and No. 18 Michigan, rising into the top 10 for the first time in a decade.

The schedule also seems suddenly softer, with no undefeated teams remaining.

The terrifying October schedule looks more manageable.

Miami is 4-1, but has surrendered 32, 52, 36 and 37 points to each of its FBS level opponents. The only top-25 opponent the Hurricanes have faced (Kansas State) blew them out, 52-10.

Stanford lost to Washington, showing that its offense can be greatly hampered by disrupting the running game, which is the specialty of the Irish defense.

BYU lost to Utah and Boise State, while cleaning up against Washington State, Weber State and Hawaii.

Oklahoma remains a formidable opponent; however, its only real test was the same Kansas State team that took Miami to the woodshed. The Sooners fell, 24-19, at home, surrendering 213 yards rushing. More will be known about Oklahoma after this week's Red River Shootout game against No. 11 Texas on October 13. 

Beyond the gauntlet of October are a trio of "winnable" games against a Pittsburgh team that dropped a game to FCS Youngstown State, Boston College, which has struggled against FBS competition, and Wake Forrest, which seems to be playing without a defense.

Then comes USC.

The Trojans have been inconsistent at times, struggling to put away Syracuse and dropping a sloppy contest at Stanford. They still have Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, but they appear to be a little lax on the defensive side of the football.

Now consider that Notre Dame has not allowed a touchdown in eight quarters.

Despite inconsistent offensive production of their own, the Irish have not for one second trailed in any of their four games.

The defense is appearing to be truly dominant, ranked as the sixth-stingiest unit in the land and holding both Michigan State and Michigan out of the end zone. 

Of course, none of this can truly be a predictor of greatness to come.

No one inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex on the campus of Notre Dame should be thinking any of this.

Certainly they shouldn't be thinking about the crushing historical burden that comes with Notre Dame. Or the fact that every head coach who has won a national championship at Notre Dame has done so in his third year.

That kind of nonsense is left to the media and the fans.

Inside the building, the focus can only be on Miami and this year's ugly helmet classic at Soldier Field.

The Hurricanes can score, and if the team is buying into its own hype, Miami could upset the Irish.

Kelly has been excellent at keeping the team focused so far.

They have dealt with the distraction of playing in Ireland.

They overcame a pesky Purdue team avoiding a letdown.

They beat a top-10 opponent on the road.

Then they overcame Denard Robinson and got the Michigan monkey off their backs.

Now they must avoid a letdown. They must avoid looking ahead.

As long as the Irish can continue playing each game as if it's the most important matchup they have ever faced, they will have a good chance to win each of them.

If they can get sophomore quarterback Everett Golson to settle down, get back to protecting the ball and begin to read defenses to pull safeties back into deep coverage, helping to open up running lanes through what has become a very crowded box, Notre Dame should win their remaining games.

Should the offense continue to limit turnovers and the defense continue to be as good as it has been thus far, the sky is the limit.

Well, maybe Alabama is the limit.

But given the low expectations, is that so bad?


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