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Brian Kelly showing Notre Dame can compete for national titles and graduate players

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

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Brian Kelly and Notre Dame can reach the BCS title game with a victory over USC. (AP)

Notre Dame might not win the national title this season. It might not even play for the national title. It could get beat soundly Saturday at Southern California. It could get past the Trojans but get blown off the field against Alabama in the BCS championship game. No one is crowning anyone with anything yet.

We are, though, burying one long-standing fallacy of college football: the idea that times had so changed that Notre Dame could never again compete for national championships, at least without lowering various academic and behavioral standards or joining a conference.

Notre Dame is irrelevant, they said. Notre Dame is arrogant to stay its course. Notre Dame is delusional, nothing but a fight song, some old movies and a deal with NBC it didn't deserve.

Well, Notre Dame is 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings heading into Thanksgiving weekend, 60 minutes from a spot in the title game, the very definition of competing for a national title.

Not possible? Try not beaten.

"We're not doing this to be No. 1 for three or four days," Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "We're doing this to have a consistent program that's in the hunt every year. That's the focus of this program."

[Related: Notre Dame in line for No. 1]

And that's the second part of this: The team that was never again supposed to be a real player on the national landscape, that couldn't attract the proper athletes, that couldn't survive without the protective cuddle of a conference, isn't just in it this year. The Irish look like they're back in the discussion for the long haul.

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Manti Te'o is expected to become a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. (AP)

This isn't some miracle team or a group powered by a singular season-changing talent. As great as senior linebacker Manti Te'o is – so great he has a legitimate shot at winning the Heisman Trophy despite playing no offense – most of Notre Dame's top players, from quarterback to a violent defensive line, are underclassmen. And a recruiting class currently ranked third nationally by Rivals.com is coming to help.

"I will tell you that winning helps in recruiting," Kelly said.

Coaching? Talent? Recruiting? Facilities? Media? Fan passion?

It's all there. Notre Dame has all of the above. Mainly, for the first time since Lou Holtz left South Bend in 1996, they have the coaching. Everything in college football stems from coaching. If you have a great one, you can be great. If you don't you won't. It's simple.

It's no different at Notre Dame than it is any other program that's seen slumps. That includes Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Miami, Michigan, USC, LSU or any other national power.

It took a while for the Irish to find Kelly, but now that they have him the results are predictable. This is a self-made coach, a man who won two national championships at Division II Grand Valley State, won a Mid-American Conference title at Central Michigan and won the Big East with a 12-0 regular season at Cincinnati.

He now has this Notre Dame program turned around (19-2 in its last 21 games) no matter what happens from here on out.

No, Notre Dame isn't going to claim five national championships, like it did in 1940s. Just as its skill players won't be automatic Heisman favorites and movie theaters back on the East Coast won't show the team's highlights, set to soaring music, before feature films.

[Also: Chaos in the BCS as top two fall]

Of course, those days are done.

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Wild Story of the Week

Kent State at Bowling Green

Dri Archer was pretty much unstoppable on Saturday.

The Kent State running back rushed for 241 yards on 17 carries and scored twice on runs of more than 70 yards as the Golden Flashes beat Bowling Green 31-24.

A 74-yard touchdown run showed just how unstoppable Archer was.

It appeared Archer was stopped at midfield, but he somehow eluded the grasp of three defenders, reversed field and kept on going all the way for the score. The magical run gave the Golden Flashes a 24-17 lead, and after the teams traded scores one more time, the Kent State defense did the rest, securing the victory with a last-minute interception in the end zone.

With a school-record 10th win, Kent State (10-1, 7-0 in the Mid-American Conference's East Division) clinched the division crown and its first-ever trip to the MAC championship game. The Golden Flashes, at the time ranked 25th in the AP poll, will face Northern Illinois in the title game.

– Phil Watson

The Irish are still the Irish, though, and that core belief in bedrock values is why they are again in the mix. They didn't need to change, they just needed to do what they do as well as it can be done.

Winning it all will always require a perfect storm for any team, but the present and future speaks to a long trip from the 3-9 days that the current redshirt seniors signed on after.

Kelly, now in his third season in South Bend, can hardly remember all the chatter about how the sport had flashed by a program that always seemed comfortable living in sepia tones, making players attend actual classes and live in actual dorms.

"I took the Notre Dame job because I wanted to get an opportunity to play for a national championship and have high graduation rates," Kelly said. "I think we're going to validate that with the No. 1 [graduation rate]. You can do both."

[Also: Big Ten considers taking on Maryland, Rutgers]

The perception of Notre Dame's inherent hurdles wasn't just from the outside, where the doubters will always remain. There were plenty inside the program who thought that admission standards were too high to get the kind of athletes – or even "criminals" in some quotes – needed to win.

Kelly instead focused on the school's immense resources, the quality of the education and the uniqueness of the Notre Dame experience and the pageantry of the program. The man found recruits at D-II. If he couldn't sell that to recruits, he figured then it was on him. After that he needed to coach them up.

"I haven't seen anything here in my time that will not allow us to continue to have the highest graduation rates and compete for national championships," he said. "I’ve been doing this [head coaching] for 22 years. So I think I know what it looks like if you couldn't do it."

It looks like Notre Dame is atop the standings in the final weeks of the season, perhaps on the verge of a championship and, without a doubt, in the kind of title contention that so many doubters said was no longer possible.

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