It's been a pleasant September in South Bend, Ind. There's a new aura surrounding the Notre Dame football team this year. The feeling is one of renewal, which seems impossible for a university steeped in history like Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish haven't been this good in years. But after getting off to a 3-0 start, confidence and positivity are growing every day.
While not exactly murderer's row, with wins over Navy, Purdue and Michigan State to open the season, there's growing sentiment that this could be a BCS-quality Notre Dame team.
Normally a win over Navy wouldn't move the needle much, but remember this is a Navy team that beat the Irish in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010. And a victory over a military academy in Dublin, Ireland was a fitting way to open the season.
Even though the Big Ten is down, Michigan State might be the best team in the conference, which is a feather in the cap of the leprechaun's bowler.
Before the season began, just getting to .500 appeared to be a monumental task for Notre Dame given their difficult schedule.
"I spent all offseason saying Brian Kelly would deserve Coach of the Year recognition if his team finished 9-3 with the brutal looking schedule it had to deal with, and I said the Irish would deserve to be a rock-solid lock for an at-large BCS slot at 10-2 and deserving of national title consideration at 11-1," wrote Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews.com in his weekly column published Tuesday.
The schedule remains daunting with dates against Oklahoma, Stanford, USC and others yet to come, but Kelly has this team heading in the right direction behind the strength of its defense.
The Irish are getting efficient play from sophomore quarterback Everett Golson, but it's the stingy defense led by linebacker Manti Te'o that's been the key to victory so far this season. Through three games, the Irish are third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 10.0 points per games.
On the docket this weekend is a home game in primetime against Michigan and dangerous quarterback Denard Robinson who led the Wolverines to a 35-31 come-from-behind victory last season after trailing 24-7 in the fourth quarter. Win this week, and the Irish will really have momentum on its side.
Notre Dame is also feeling good about its new conference affiliation with the ACC announced last week. Don't be fooled. Appearances can be deceiving.
Despite the Irish joining the conference for every sport but football and hockey, this decision was driven more by football than one might believe. First of all, it allows Notre Dame to maintain their football independence, which is critical to their exclusive television contract with NBC or any other future partner.
As an added benefit, Notre Dame also receives access to the ACC's bowl tie-ins and will play five games per year against ACC teams.
Certainly, the Irish have a long way to go before declaring this season a success. But a quarter of the way to the finish line, Notre Dame can feel good being part of the lead pack and feel good about itself. After years of underachieving, Notre Dame is creeping its way to the front of the nation's consciousness once again.
Where College Gameday Is At
This week, ESPN's College Gameday is in Tallahassee, Fla. for No. 4 Florida State's ACC clash with No. 10 Clemson.
You might remember Gameday coming to Florida State at almost the same time of year last season. The Seminoles had the attention of most of the country as Oklahoma came for a visit. After a 23-13 loss, however, the perception of Florida State as a national title contender died.
The truth is, the Seminoles are much better equipped for a run at a BCS title this season anyway. Granted, they've played a creampuff schedule, but the Florida State defense is for real.
Through three games, they lead the nation in scoring defense (giving up 1.0 points per game), rushing defense (33.67 yards per game), passing defense (69.7 ypg) and total defense (103.3 ypg). Defensive end Bjorn Werner is the star who leads the nation with 6.5 sacks and 9.0 tackles for a loss.
It will be a challenge for Florida State to deal with Clemson's talent at the skill positions. Through their first three contests, running back Andre Ellington is rushing for more than 110 yards per game, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is gaining over 100 yards per game through the air and quarterback Tajh Boyd has a 166.91 passer rating.
And that's not to mention arguably the most dangerous player on the team, wide receiver and return specialist Sammy Watkins who was suspended for the first two games of the season.
Prediction: Clemson's offense will finally meet its match. Florida State will win a game that's lower scoring than expected, 28-14.
The Wisconsin Connection
When Utah State missed a fourth-quarter field goal with just seconds remaining on the clock, Wisconsin was lucky to escape a second consecutive embarrassing loss, following the one to Oregon State a week prior when the Badgers could only muster seven points.
The offensive line coach might have been the scapegoat after the Badgers' loss to the Beavers, but their issues extend beyond the offensive line.
Despite having a Heisman Trophy finalist at running back, the ground game isn't working. The passing game hasn't picked up the slack. And the under-the-radar reason Wisconsin is struggling is because the defense has yet to force a turnover this season and has only three sacks on the year.
UTEP is on tap this week. It's the type of opponent the Badgers should blow out. But remember, this is a UTEP team that gave Oklahoma all it could handle in the season opener, down just 10-7 entering the fourth quarter. The Miners had two blocked kicks and three sacks that game.
Attention this week will be on new starting quarterback Joel Stave, a redshirt freshman. Former starter Danny O'Brien was benched at halftime of the Utah State game, and Stave played in the second half but did little of note.
Prediction: Until Wisconsin proves it's back on track, it's difficult to see them come up with a dominating effort. The Badgers will do enough to win, but it will be a struggle once again. Wisconsin 21, UTEP 10.
This week's exclusive interview is with Kent State senior offensive lineman Brian Winters whose Golden Flashes won a nationally-televised game 23-7 on the road Wednesday evening at Buffalo. Winters is the ninth rated tackle in his class by NFLDraftScout.com.
What did it mean to Kent State to beat Buffalo on the road?
Brian Winters: "It was a great game. It was something that we needed to boost our feel on how we're going to do the rest of the season. We feel that they're a good team. They had a hard scheme that we had to pick up on offense. We went down there; we did our job. Everyone did really well, and we came out on top. And it was a great way to start out the MAC play."
What is it going to take to keep pace with Ohio in the MAC East?
Winters: "It's going to take a lot of extra work. They're a really good team. They came off that big win against Penn State and they beat Marshall. They're a really good team, and we just have to do everything we can to be perfect, really. We don't have any room for mistakes, and we just have to execute everything we can to be perfect."
What are the team goals at Kent State this season?
Winters: "We want to be MAC champs, that's our biggest thing. We feel that it's our time and it's our year to do that, and we want everyone to be on board."
How about you personally? What are your individual goals?
Winters: "I just want to do everything I can to help out the team. My individual goal is obviously to be All-MAC and to do the best I can to make our team successful, and that's pretty much it."
What is your personal strength as a football player? What is the one thing you do best that you offer to your team?
Winters: "I play hard every play."
It's as simple as that?
Winters: "It's as simple as that, really. That's really what I give. I go out, and I do everything I can to help out as hard as I can. How I play is I play hard every snap. I don't take off any plays."
As you get ready to face Ball State next week, what do they do well that you have to prepare for?
Winters: "They have a good passing game. As far as their defense, they're a pretty good stout team. The last time we played them was my sophomore year. They were a solid team then. We've got to be ready for every team in the MAC. They always have a solid defense. We just have to prepare for their schemes and go from there."
What Happened Before Saturday
On Thursday evening, the nation was witness to two teams that couldn't play a lick of offense. On Friday night, observers saw a pair of squads that didn't play any defense.
Boise State defeated BYU on Thursday by the score of 7-6, the difference being an interception returned for a touchdown by defensive tackle Mike Atkinson off a zone blitz.
Not only didn't fans see any offense in that game, they didn't see much special teams either with both teams not trusting or eschewing their opportunities to kick field goals and extra points. The latter happened when BYU went for two-point conversion and failed midway through the fourth quarter while attempting to go for the win instead of the tie.
Boise State may have won, but this is not the Broncos of old that were among the best offensive teams in nation last year by averaging over 44 points per game. They simply lost too much talent to the NFL, including star quarterback Kellen Moore.
Then on Friday, Baylor rallied on the road after trailing 35-34 in the fourth quarter to defeat Louisiana-Monroe 47-42. It was the ninth consecutive victory for Baylor dating back to last season, during which they've accumulated over 500 yards of offense in every game over that span.
It was the third consecutive game ULM took on a major BCS conference opponent after beating Arkansas in their season opener and losing to Auburn in overtime, both on the road. At the very least, the Warhawks should be setting themselves up as being one of the most dangerous teams in the Sun Belt.
***To see which NFL teams are sending scouts to college football games this weekend, check out the website of NFL Draft analyst Chris Steuber.***
Brian Carriveau is the author of "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and an editor at Cheesehead TV. To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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