For years Notre Dame athletics, specifically Notre Dame football, has been the most divisive program in all of America. People love to love the the golden domers and, conversely, people love to despise them even more. There also appears to be a noticeable disdain for Notre Dame that comes from many (not all, but many) minorities in this country, much like the one that exists for Duke basketball.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact the university is located in rural Indiana (not exactly Lenox Ave., you feel me?) and is a Catholic institution nicknamed the “Fighting Irish”. Quite frankly, none of these elements scream “black acceptance”, particularly the nickname. This is not at all to suggest that Notre Dame and South Bend, IN is not an accepting university/community. Notre Dame has produced many prominent black athletes, from Austin Carr, to Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, to Jerome Bettis (to…Golden Tate!). Regardless, the stigma that accompanies Notre Dame is alive and well.

Maybe it has something to do with Paul Hornung, another former Heisman winner from Notre Dame, stating that the school must lower its academic requirements in order to “get the black athlete” back in 2004 (a statement that could’ve been construed as offensive in about 15 different ways). Comments made this summer by Notre Dame radio broadcaster Allen Pinkett (a black man) were loaded with enough racial undertones to make Al Sharpton’s spidey sense overload.

Whatever the case, the negative taste that Notre Dame tends to leave people managed to make its way into my own athletic palate at a very young age. Growing up in a fairly large Irish-Catholic area, Notre Dame was extremely popular within the community. I can still remember people rocking pull-over Notre Dame Starter jackets. Even my elementary school ripped off their fight song for our school anthem. Even some 20 years ago, the whole thing just seemed corny to me.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Fighting Irish’s top ranked football team is being met with a large amount criticism. Haters and skeptics alike have aligned from coast to coast to question this team’s national championship credentials. Despite any preconceived biases that may exist, people need to realize the Notre Dame Fighting Irish earned every bit of their BCS National Championship game appearance.

For starters, the Irish are the only eligible undefeated Football Bowl Subdivision (or FBS) team remaining at the conclusion of the 2012 regular season. This, coming off of a relatively pedestrian 8-5 season last year and a loss in Champs Sports Bowl.

Sidebar: Were you even aware there was a Champs Sports Bowl? If you said yes, you’re probably lying.

Notre Dame did not even finish inside the BCS Top 25 last year, yet third-year coach Brian Kelly has been able to guide his team to victory after victory, starting with a win over Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Unranked to start the season, ND blew out the Midshipmen by 40 that day and have five other victories by double-digits. One of those wins came against the University of Oklahoma, in Norman. Oklahoma, ranked eighth at that point, are now 9-2 and ranked 11th. yet they were completely outclassed by Notre Dame on October 27. The Irish held a slim 10-3 after three quarters, but they torched the Sooners 20-3 in the final stanza, en route to a convincing 30-13 victory. In the process, they held the nation’s 7th highest scoring team (41.7 ppg) to just one touchdown. Notre Dame also has wins against three other teams that were ranked at the time the game took place (and a win at USC, the preseason #1 team in America), including at then #10 Michigan State.

Many college football fans fail to realize one trait that any championship team must have in abundance is the ability to pull out W’s in tight games that you have no business winning.

Check.

This season, Kelly’s squad won five games decided by a touchdown or less, three of which were decided by a field goal or less and two of which were in overtime. During the year (and now still) many pointed to these close calls and viewed them as damning evidence for the case against ND’s legitimacy as a BCS title contender. However, these narrow escapes should not be condemned. Rather, they should be commended, as each performance demonstrated great poise and resolve under pressure. We revere Jordan for his shot against Utah, yet why did people still seem to question Notre Dame after their Houdini act against Pitt? Hell, that’s what being a championship team is all about! We saw it from Cam Newton and Auburn in Tuscaloosa, we even saw it from defending champion Alabama this year against LSU.

Rarely does a team steamroll its entire schedule on the road to a championship. A champion is built on mental and physical toughness, grit & want-to. No team has executed this better than the Fighting Irish in 2012; that fact became evident during the team’s two defining moments of the season— a goal-line stand that defeated Standford (now ranked eighth in the BCS standings) in overtime and another goal-line stand to preserve a victory against Southern Cal and secure their spot in the title game.

Sidebar: Notre Dame may have gotten a little help from the zebras…I never said getting lucky wasn’t a part of a championship team’s makeup though.

They do it with defense. The Irish rank second in the FBS in fewest points allowed at 10.3 per contest and have held five opponents to under 10 points. If you’ve read a recent piece on HHSR, you know that I am a strong believer in the philosophy that “defense wins championships”. This defense is not only legit, it’s a unit led by a guy who possesses a crazy amount of strength.

Sidebar: I’m not just talking about on the field either. If you don’t think Manti Te’o isn’t one of the most deserving players for the Heisman Trophy, read this story (pay close attention to the third paragraph).

No defensive player has a better combination of instincts and leadership in college football than Manti Te’o.

Even with this, football fans remain unimpressed with the Fighting Irish. Meanwhile, other contending teams, like Oregon and the SEC schools, have maintained a certain level of respect from much of the public without having the credentials of Notre Dame. For instance, people couldn’t wait to throw Oregon back into the BCS title game, yet the Ducks’ best win after nine games was a victory at then #17 USC (a game in which they gave up 51 points). When they ran up against Stanford (their toughest game on the schedule), Oregon was involved in their first dogfight of the year, and not surprisingly, they came up short in a home loss in OT. This is the same Stanford team Notre Dame defeated at home in OT. Due to that L, Oregon, a team that many thought would smack Notre Dame, won’t even compete in the Pac 12 Championship Game.

The SEC, of course, has a reputation of being superior to all other conferences. While it does contain a few good teams at the top, the SEC still has their share of bottom-feeders as well (ahem!). Georgia and Alabama will battle it out in the SEC Conference Championship Game on Saturday for the right to face Notre Dame in the BCS title game, but it will be the two team’s first meeting of the season. In fact, the Georgia Bulldogs have faced only two ranked teams all season, a home win over then #2 Florida and a 36-7 road ethering at the hands of then #6 South Carolina.

Bama, on the other hand, has faced four ranked opponents to this point. One of those games was a season-opening win against Michigan, the same Michigan team Notre Dame also defeated. They also beat a grossly overrated Mississippi State team by 31 points at home, barely snuck out of Death Valley with the aforementioned victory over LSU and then…they got dropped by Johnny Manziel (and if there’s a better nickname going in sports right now than “Johnny Football“, I haven’t heard it. This kid’s popularity is seriously sweeping the nation).

Sidebar: Mississippi State was ranked 11th when they lost to Bama, yet they hadn’t even played one ranked opponent. This was after a 7-6 (2-6 SEC) campaign in 2011. Since losing to the Crimson Tide, Miss St. caught a fade in three of their next four contests by an average of three touchdowns. This is exactly why a growing number of people believe the SEC is overrated. Yes there are good teams, but like every conference, there are also mediocre teams. Yet somehow the SEC’s mediocre teams are ranked 11th in the nation while having done nothing to earn it.

Recently, I spoke to a friend who is a hardcore Notre Dame fan, and he pointed out (before I had heard it on ESPN or anywhere else) that Irish haters, particularly those who say they would not last 5 minutes on the field with an SEC team, should love this team because, ironically, they’re exactly like an SEC team. Disciplined, tough, defensive minded low scoring football— that is what teams like Bama and LSU have been founded on in recent years. This is the same blueprint Notre Dame has followed. It also helps to have an emerging signal-caller, that can manage the game and make plays in the clutch, coming into his own at the perfect time…actually, the Irish have that too.

After supplanting junior Tommy Rees as the starting quarterback, sophomore Everett Golson has evolved into an efficient duel-threat option for the Irish. His best game as a passer came two weeks ago against Wake Forest where he was 20-30 for 346 yards and three TDs, with one interception (189.9 passer rating). He also has a rushing touchdown in three of his last five games. Like every starter in his first year, Golson has had peaks and valleys this season, and though Brian Kelly has pulled him during games this year, he never lost faith in the kid. That confidence the coach had in his quarterback, which never resulted in Kelly yanking the starting gig away from Golson, is now paying dividends.

When evaluating talent, whether it be in sports, hip-hop or otherwise, it’s always best to remain as impartial as one can. Notre Dame will continue to have their fair share of detractors, they wouldn’t be Notre Dame if they didn’t. But fans need to start looking beyond Skylar Diggins when attempting to find something likable about Notre Dame athletics (not that you have to stop looking at Skylar Diggins). Nobody is guaranteeing that they will win the BSC National Championship, but this group has all of the characteristics of a championship team, and at this moment, has more of a right to be on the field at the Orange Bowl on January 7 than any other team in the country.

Notre Dame has earned my respect. By now, they should’ve earned yours too.

 

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