College football: Notre Dame justifies relevance on national stage

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No, the exultations aren’t entirely correct after Notre Dame’s 30-13 defeat of Oklahoma on Saturday.

Notre Dame isn’t back but only because the Fighting Irish, being who they are, still are an omnipresent part of the national discussion. They were always there.

Notre Dame isn’t relevant again but only because it was always relevant, with its national television contract, large fan base and assiduous grasp on football independence in a time of realignment tumult.

But the Irish are interesting, something that could not be said often over the past decade and a half. At 8-0, how could they not be?

It’s not familiar territory for Notre Dame, at least over the last generation. Bob Davie never made it out of September without a loss. Tyrone Willingham did so once in his three-season stint, a stirring 8-0 start in his 2002 debut season that fizzled with a 2-3 finish.

Charlie Weis, for all his bluster and his self-proclaimed “decided schematic advantage,” endured a defeat by Sept. 20 in each of his five seasons. And in Brian Kelly’s first two seasons, September brought multiple setbacks.

What’s different this season, besides the perfect record and Saturday’s emphatic victory, just the Irish’s third on the road against a top-10 team since Lou Holtz’s exit after the 1996 season? It’s a resplendent defense, particularly a front seven featuring freakish defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and All-American linebacker Manti Te’o.

It is a group responsible for yielding just six touchdowns all year, including one to Landry Jones and the Sooners. (The Irish also gave up a score on a fumble recovery to Stanford.) And its final act Saturday was especially rich, swarming Jones on the last play of a lost game.

Yes, Kelly’s influence is profound, and he’s demonstrating why he won and won big at Division II Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before arriving in South Bend. But it’s the defense that makes this edition of the Irish so interesting, and leaves them very much in contention for a crystal trophy with four games remaining in the regular season.

Weekend risers

Jarvis Jones. It was a monster day for the Georgia linebacker, who had 13 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles in a 17-9 defeat of Florida. With the Gators’ Jordan Reed 5 yards from a touchdown, Jones jarred the ball loose for teammate Sanders Commings to recover in the end zone with 2:05 left. The Bulldogs will win the SEC East with victories over Mississippi and Auburn the next two weeks.

Kent State. The Golden Flashes earned their first victory ever against a ranked team, forcing seven turnovers in a 35-23 triumph at previously unbeaten Rutgers. Kent State (7-1) has its most victories since going 7-4 in 1987 and is on its first six-game winning streak since 1940.

Hugh Freeze. Freeze inherited a moribund Mississippi team with a narrow path to bowl eligibility and has impressively navigated it, improving to 5-3 with a 30-27 defeat of Arkansas. Road trips to Georgia and LSU will be tough tasks, but the Rebels could have a shot at a sixth victory in either of their remaining home contests: Mississippi State or Vanderbilt.

Weekend decliners

Marcus Lattimore. In one of the season’s most wrenching moments, Lattimore — a workhorse back for South Carolina whose season was cut short with right knee ligament tears last year — suffered a gruesome injury to the same leg. “He’s going to do wonderful things,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier told reporters. “I don’t know what field of life.”

Southern California. So much for those national title hopes. The Trojans had a chance to slip back into the discussion in November with home games against Oregon and Notre Dame. Well, until they lost 39-36 at Arizona.

BCS busting. There are no more unbeatens outside the power conferences after Ohio’s 23-20 setback at Miami (Ohio), which probably means there is only one plausible BCS crasher left. That would be Boise State (7-1). The Broncos need to win their last four games, rise into the top 16 of the BCS standings and hope an automatic qualifying conference champ (here’s looking at you, Big Ten) is ranked below them at season’s end.

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