You’ve got to be a real hater not to appreciate what Notre Dame has done this season.  Saturday night’s win over rival Southern Cal, punctuated by one of the all-time great goal line stands late in the fourth quarter, completed a dream season for the Fighting Irish.

They are undefeated, 12 – 0. Seriously, no one honestly saw that coming.  I certainly didn’t.  I’d pretty much come to expect the 4, 5 sometimes even 6 or 7 losses the Irish had started racking up in recent years.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti T’eo

The fact is number one ranked Notre Dame has not been a true powerhouse in nearly two decades.  And the last national championship and undefeated season for the legendary football program came in 1988.

Before the start of this football season, Allen Pinkett, a Notre Dame radio analyst, and a former Notre Dame All-America running back, suggested during an interview that the reason the team has struggled so much is because they didn’t have any “criminals”.

“I’ve always felt like, to have a successful team, you have to have a few bad citizens on the team. That’s how Ohio State used to win all the time. They would have two or three guys that were criminals and that just adds to the chemistry of the team.

“You can’t have a football team full of choir boys. You get your butt kicked if you’ve got a team full of choir boys.”

Pinkett was suspended three games by the radio network for those comments.   And while the school and many others, were publicly outraged by what he said, privately many more, including this writer, agreed with the point Pinkett so clumsily tried to make: that at its core Notre Dame didn’t have the nastiness needed to be one of the nation’s best football programs anymore.

But despite the doubts about his players and the program, third-year head coach Brian Kelly has found a way to return the Irish to glory.  It starts with their defense.   The Irish have shut down just about every offense they’ve faced this year, allowing fewer than 10 touchdowns for the entire season.

The defensive centerpiece is Heisman hopeful Manti T’eo, an extraordinary linebacker who gets tackles in bunches and has snagged a score of interceptions.

The national championship is played in Miami on January 7.  It will likely match Notre Dame against either defending BCS champion Alabama Crimson Tide or the Georgia Bulldogs who play for the SEC championship next Saturday.  My daughter, a proud Bulldog senior, promptly messaged me after Notre Dame’s memorable goal line stand, to insist that Notre Dame doesn’t have a chance against either SEC team.

And as much as I hate to admit it, she might be right, at least based on history.  An SEC team has won the last six national championship games.

But for at least another six weeks, Notre Dame can bask in the glow of what so far is a perfect season, their best in more than 20 years.  As a result, I think it’s now finally safe to say the Fighting Irish are back.

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