Irish got lucky on their way to the top

Even on Monday morning, it’s still weird to see Notre Dame at No. 1 in the BCS standings. The Fighting Irish have, in my lifetime at least, always been that team with a lot of history and tradition, but largely irrelevant in the modern day – much like Alabama until Nick Saban came around.

They’ve never been in the national championship picture this late in the season, and on Saturday the Irish took down USC 22-13 to clinch an undefeated season, as well as a spot in Miami for the title game. They’re expected to face the winner of the SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Georgia.

So the question a lot of Alabama fans, and others who haven’t watched much of Notre Dame this year, are asking is: How did the Irish get here?

Head coach Brian Kelly was hired after the 2009 season, when he led Cincinnati to a 12-0 regular season record. He followed Charlie Weiss, who started his tenure off with a BCS bowl win but then finished with a total record of 35-27.

Kelly was the man for the rebuild, and the process has been much quicker than anticipated. He opened up with back-to-back 8-5 seasons, but surprised everyone with an undefeated season in his third.

“This happened a year faster [than I thought it would],” Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick told CBSSports.com’s Bruce Feldman.

They’ve done it largely behind a defense that has come up with timely stops led by Heisman trophy candidate Manti Te’o at linebacker, a quarterback in Everett Golson that doesn’t make mistakes and a little luck of the Irish.

Two goal-line stands have largely defined the season. The first came on a controversial ending against Stanford in mid-October. Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor ran straight up the middle from the 1-yard line, and officials ruled his forward progress had been stopped before he made one last lunge across the goal line.

The second came Saturday against USC. The Trojans had seven chances from inside the 7-yard line, but couldn’t get in thanks to the stout Irish front and some questionable play-calling from everyone’s favorite coach Lane Kiffin.

Te’o is considered the only real threat to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (remember him?) for the Heisman trophy. He’s tallied 103 tackles, seven interceptions and 1.5 sacks, and he seems to make plays at just the right time.

But the Irish have needed a little bit of luck to get this far. A Nov. 3 win over Pitt provides the perfect example.

Notre Dame battled back from a 20-6 deficit to send the game into overtime. The teams traded field goals in the first extra period, but in the second, running back Cierre Wood fumbled and the Panthers recovered. Pitt needed a 33-yard field goal to knock Notre Dame from the ranks of the unbeaten, but missed and the Irish won it in the third overtime.

It also didn’t have to face USC with star quarterback Matt Barkley. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek got the start due to an injury to Barkley and couldn’t get the job done.

And so, Notre Dame will face an SEC team in Miami for the national championship in what will surely be one of the highest-rated championship games for name recognition alone. The Irish have survived thus far but still need one more win to show the world they’re back.