Notre Dame is finally underrated ... and now it deserves some respect

Pat Forde
College football and basketball columnist

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Here is a novel concept for America to embrace:

Notre Dame is underrated.

That’s right, the school that set the historical standard for being overrated across much of the last three decades is actually on the other end of the spectrum at present. The Fighting Irish are underappreciated in the popularity contest that is the top-25 rankings. They came into their College Football Playoff elimination game Saturday night against USC ranked 13th in the AP poll and 16th in the USA Today poll.

That was too low before kickoff. It’s now way too low after bludgeoning the Trojans by the shocking score of 49-14.

When the new polls come out Sunday, Notre Dame should be no lower than seventh – and you could make an argument for the Irish to be higher. They have the best one-loss resume in America – better than Ohio State, better than Clemson, better than Oklahoma, better than Oklahoma State and better than Washington, all of which currently are ahead of Notre Dame in the human polls.

The single defeat is by a single point, and it came against undefeated Georgia. All six Irish victories are by a minimum of 20 points. That includes a road win over a Michigan State team that is now 6-1, and this pulverizing of the 6-2 Trojans.

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush breaks through the Southern California defense as he scrambles during the first half on Saturday. He rushed for 106 yard in Notre Dame’s impressive victory. (AP)

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, whose improvement has been dramatic since that Sept. 9 loss to the Bulldogs, was asked if he and his team might indeed be underrated. He deflected the question for the most part.

“I try not to pay much attention to the rankings, who’s overrated, who’s underrated,” Wimbush said after throwing for 120 yards, running for 106 and accounting for four touchdowns.

Soon enough, it will be time to pay attention to such things.

Just more than a week before the first playoff rankings are released, Notre Dame is knocking on the door of the throne room. And if the Irish keep winning, an 11-1 record could well be good enough to gain entrance and sit down at the four-team table.

But getting to 11-1 sure won’t be easy. The rest of Notre Dame’s schedule is loaded with challenges.

That starts with a game Saturday against another hot one-loss team, North Carolina State, which has reeled off six straight victories after a season-opening loss to South Carolina. Then comes Wake Forest (4-3), a game at undefeated Miami, the home finale against schematically problematic Navy (5-2), and then a trip to Stanford (5-2).

(That Notre Dame-Miami game is shaping up to be the most significant meeting in that semi-rivalry in decades.)

Every remaining Notre Dame opponent has a winning record. Every remaining opponent but Navy entered the weekend ranked in the Sagarin top 35. The Irish strength of schedule already was respectable, but by season’s end it should be outstanding.

This victory over USC not only should rocket Notre Dame up the rankings, it should further establish Brian Kelly as a national coach of the year candidate. Not many coaches did a worse job last year than Kelly, whose program tanked to 4-8, but he now deserves credit for turning the thing back around in the right direction.

Kelly engaged in personal and program soul-searching after the 2016 season with his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Among the changes they arrived at was a coordinator overhaul, with new men in charge of offense (Chip Long), defense (Mike Elko) and special teams (Brian Polian). The upgrades have been immediate and emphatic.

Offensively, a head coach who likes to throw it has embraced the run-first reality of a team blessed with a great offensive line, a stud running back in Josh Adams and a dual-threat quarterback. In Kelly’s first seven seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish offense has never run the ball more than 56.6 percent of the time. Seven games into this season, the run percentage is 62 percent (and that’s without excessively burdening Adams, who still hasn’t had a 20-carry game).

Notre Dame team members sing with students after routing USC on Saturday, 49-14. (AP)

This is a team capable of mauling every opponent to date not named Georgia in the run game. Notre Dame absolutely buried USC in that area Saturday night, rushing 47 times for 377 yards.

“When you run for 377 yards,” Kelly said, “I think we know who the more physical football team was.”

But the most impressive improvement from 2016 to 2017 is on the defensive side of the ball. After grabbing Elko from Wake Forest, Notre Dame has dramatically increased its takeaways while notably decreasing its yards allowed per play.

The Irish had three takeaways against USC – although, in reality, it was two takeaways and a dropped punt that Notre Dame did nothing to cause. That makes 17 turnovers gained on the season, already more than each of the past two years.

The Irish defense also is allowing 4.86 yards per play – a big drop from last year’s 5.4. This is the best Irish defense in that category since the 2012 team that went 12-0 before being trucked by Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.

“We didn’t trade for anybody,” Kelly said. “There’s nobody on the waiver wire we picked up.”

Indeed, it’s pretty much the same cast of defensive players, but this season they’re equipped with a better plan.

USC has several of the same key players from its 2016 Rose Bowl champion team – but the results are dramatically different. This blowout loss kicks a preseason top-five team out of playoff contention and stamps the Trojans as one of the bigger disappointments nationally.

Sam Darnold came into the season as the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Now he’s nowhere on the list, after serving up his 10th interception of the year and losing a fumble on USC’s first offensive play of the night (he wasn’t helped by a high snap). His struggles have mirrored the team’s.

Turns out USC was significantly overrated coming into the season. And it turns out Notre Dame, of all teams, was significantly underrated.

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