The third year of a head coach’s tenure is a Notre Dame bellwether.
Brian Kelly is one game away from securing his place in the Fighting Irish’s pantheon of championship coaches after Saturday’s 22-13 defeat of Southern California.
Frank Leahy won a national title in his third year at Notre Dame. So did Ara Parseghian. And Dan Devine. And Lou Holtz.
It was under Holtz the Fighting Irish enjoyed their most recent halcyon days, from that 1988 championship with Tony Rice under center to a fleeting No. 1 ranking late in the 1993 season.
And it is under Kelly, who won big at Division II Grand Valley State, won at Central Michigan and won at an absurd clip at Cincinnati, that Notre Dame has a chance to revisit the heady days of yore.
The only two uncertainties are just who remains between Notre Dame and its championship and whether it can handle the talent of the Southeastern Conference opponent it is sure to face.
These Irish are not big-game pushovers. Far from it. Linebacker Manti Te’o anchors an imposing defense that’s yielded more than 14 points just twice. Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t generate pinball numbers but still generated more than 200 yards rushing in six of the past eight games.
As for the opponent, the logical candidates are Alabama and Georgia, a pair of 11-1 teams set to meet Saturday in Atlanta in the SEC championship. Chances are, it will function as a play-in game.
But one other team warrants a place in the discussion, and that’s 11-1 Florida. No one owns the set of victories the Gators do (Louisiana State and South Carolina in the Swamp, Florida State and Texas A&M on the road), not even the eventual Alabama-Georgia winner. Florida’s loss came on a neutral field, while Alabama’s came at home.
Florida won’t hopscotch a one-loss Georgia team, not after falling to the Bulldogs last month. It would offer an interesting case when compared to the Crimson Tide, should Nick Saban’s team win the SEC crown, though voting inertia is unlikely to prompt a change in the polls.
No matter who emerges, Notre Dame is safely into a Jan. 7 date in Miami and just 60 minutes from securing Kelly his place in Irish lore as the latest third-year coach to win big in South Bend.
Johnny Manziel. Is the Texas A&M freshman headed for the Heisman? He’s up to 4,600 total yards and 43 touchdowns (24 passing, 19 rushing), and the 10-2 Aggies have more than taken care of the de facto criteria of team success usually needed for the stiff-arming statue.
Nebraska. The Cornhuskers head to the Big Ten title game and will face Wisconsin with their first conference championship since 1999 on the line. The Rose Bowl awaits if Nebraska can dispatch the 7-5 Badgers in Indianapolis.
Urban Meyer. There will be no complaints at Ohio State about the Urban Legend’s first year at the Horseshoe. The Buckeyes wrapped up a 12-0 season — their first perfect year since their 2002 national title — with a 26-21 defeat of Michigan. Meyer’s best has yet to come in Columbus, but he’s off to a rousing start.