What to watch, Week 13: Notre Dame’s final step to the title game

Dr. Saturday

Notre Dame was unranked in the preseason AP poll. USC was No. 1.

Funny that it's the Trojans in the spoiler role this week.

Even if you've grown up hating Notre Dame, you have to admit this is a pretty cool story.

Notre Dame, an independent that hasn't been a big part of the national title conversation in almost 20 years, has survived many close calls this season. In Week 2, a jet-lagged team that started the season in Ireland beat Purdue with seven seconds to go. Notre Dame needed a controversial call to get past Stanford in overtime. There were dramatic comeback victories against BYU and Pitt, the latter coming in three overtimes after Notre Dame trailed 20-6 in the fourth quarter and Pitt blew a field goal in the second overtime.

And then, when it looked like Notre Dame was going to finish undefeated and out of the BCS title race, it got two upset losses by Oregon and Kansas State last week to move up to No. 1 in the BCS standings.

We don't think of Notre Dame as an underdog, based on it being a college football superpower before anyone had heard of the internet, but the 2012 Notre Dame team is one of the best underdog stories in college football in years. The AP voters didn't figure Notre Dame to be one of the 25 best teams in college football before the season, and even when an undefeated season became possible, the Irish faced getting shut out of the ol' boys BCS title game, just like TCU and Utah in years before it. The Irish kept pulling off miracles to get to 11-0, got some breaks it needed when teams above them lost and climbed to No. 1 in the BCS standings.

Strip away the Notre Dame mystique that is decades old, and you have a tale that rivals "Rudy." Of course, it can come to a screeching halt this weekend.

USC does have the talent to knock off Notre Dame, of course. It's tough to see that talent through all the startling mistakes and poor coaching, but the Trojans could rise up against Notre Dame when they kick off at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday.

USC won't have injured starting quarterback Matt Barkley, but redshirt freshman Max Wittek (whose comment that "we're going to win this ballgame" was ridiculously overblown this week - what else is he supposed to think, that they'll lose?) was a highly touted recruit who has more talent than many of the quarterbacks Notre Dame has seen this year.

A win by USC adds a lot of intrigue to the BCS Championship Game race. A win by Notre Dame caps off an improbable regular season and gives the Irish a chance to play for a national championship in Miami on Jan. 7.

The roles have reversed for the two teams significantly over this season.

"That's why they play the games, you know," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, according to IrishIllustrated.com. "It's a long season. It's college football. It's 18 to 21 year olds. There are so many factors go into this. That's why as coaches, and we get asked all the time, 'Hey, did you expect to win 11 or 12?' We know the unexpected is always out there, so we try to stay focused on the next practice. If we did what you did and did that big picture stuff, it would drive us crazy, too."

Here's the rest of what to watch during a busy Saturday in Week 10:

• Ohio State and Michigan play (12 p.m. ET) an interesting game in their storied rivalry. This might not be the start of another "10 Year War," but both programs should come into this game for the foreseeable future battling for their respective division titles because each school has found a good fit at coach.

Brady Hoke has Michigan at 8-3 and Urban Meyer is 11-0 in his first season in Columbus. Neither school is entirely happy - the Wolverines couldn't beat out Nebraska for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, and not having the chance to play in a bowl game is a tough deal for a talented Buckeyes team that might have ended up in the BCS Championship Game - but in the big picture the future is bright.

For now, Meyer wants to send his seniors off with an undefeated season. That's as good as Ohio State could have done this year, and if Notre Dame loses Saturday or in its bowl game, a 12-0 Buckeyes team would have the pride of knowing they were the only undefeated team in FBS this year, sanctions or not.

"I love them," Meyer said of his seniors, according to BuckeyeGrove.com. "They had a new staff coming in, they were told they were going to be ineligible to play in a bowl game and they had a free pass to go anywhere in the country they wanted to go. To a man, they stayed. To a man, they improved. And to a man, I'd say they've had their best year off football."

• Stanford came very close to being in line to play in the BCS Championship Game. The Cardinal has wins over USC, Oregon and Oregon State, three of the four top best teams in the conference other than itself, with a chance to beat the fourth, UCLA, on Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET). Stanford's losses are a 4-point defeat at Washington in which it led by 10 in the second half and allowed the game-winning touchdown with a little more than five minutes left, and an overtime loss at Notre Dame in which running back Stepfan Taylor was stopped on fourth and inches - although his knee never hit the turf and he got in on his second effort, but the whistle had already blown the play dead.

Here's the play at Notre Dame that changed the entire BCS picture:

Certainly it must be tough for Stanford knowing what could have been.

But here's the reality for Stanford: With a win over UCLA (6:30 p.m. ET), the Cardinal clinches a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game (against UCLA, coincidentally), winning the division over mighty Oregon and earning a chance to advance to the Rose Bowl. In the post Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck era, that's a really successful season, no matter what could have happened with a few breaks.

• Georgia controls its own national championship fate. With a win over Georgia Tech (12 p.m. ET), the Bulldogs' SEC Championship Game will be not only for a conference championship but also a spot in the BCS Championship Game - assuming Alabama beats Auburn as well.

That didn't seem possible after Georgia lost 35-7 against South Carolina, but it's a long season. A spot in the ACC Championship Game didn't seem possible for Georgia Tech when it was 2-4 or 3-5. The Yellow Jackets fired defensive coordinator Al Groh. The outlook looked bleak. But Georgia Tech has won three in a row, and with Miami taking itself out of consideration for the ACC title game, the Yellow Jackets will represent the Coastal Division.

Neither of these teams were feeling very good in early October, but both have reason to be pretty positive going into this game.

• With Pat Forde's report that Auburn is under investigation as the NCAA looks into "potential improprieties involving Auburn recruits, players, coaches, representatives of the school's athletic interests and third parties," it would take something unexpected for Auburn's Gene Chizik to keep his job. A win over Alabama (3:30 p.m.) would help, but that might take a miracle.

Alabama is favored by 33 points. The Crimson Tide needs to win to set up a BCS title game play-in against Georgia. And the Iron Bowl will never be overlooked no matter how bad Auburn is. The Tigers are 3-8, and 0-7 in the SEC. This could get ugly.

• Florida State is another team that might have a lot of regrets this offseason. Without a loss at NC State, the Seminoles would be in a position now where they controlled their own destiny for a spot in the BCS Championship Game. Instead, one-loss Florida is way ahead in line.

Florida ranks fourth in the BCS standings while Florida State is stuck at 10th as the two prepare to meet (3:30 p.m. ET). Being in the ACC and having a terrible non-conference schedule outside this game against the Gators has hurt the Seminoles. They've only played one team all year that has been ranked. They have, however, blown out just about every team they've beaten. A six-point win at Virginia Tech on a Thursday night is the only single-digit win for the Seminoles. Florida hasn't been discussed a lot after losing to Georgia, because it played Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State the past three weeks. But as odd as it may sound, considering Florida won't play in the SEC Championship Game, a win Saturday at Florida State keeps the Gators alive for a spot in the BCS Championship Game.

• Lost in the bigger news of Rutgers joining the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights still have a Big East Championship to chase. Rutgers plays at Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET) before it finishes the season with a home game at Louisville next Thursday. Rutgers is the only undefeated team in Big East play, and will have star running back Jawan Jamison available for a bigger role this week. Pitt is just 4-6, but does have some talent. This Panthers team did come close to knocking off now-No. 1 Notre Dame earlier this year.

• Oregon's game at Oregon State (3 p.m. ET) lost a lot of intrigue with the Ducks' loss last week to Stanford. Oregon now needs a loss by Stanford to even win its division, much less play for the national title (though, there are certain scenarios that would get the Ducks back in the national championship mix).

Oregon State hasn't won in the Civil War since 2007, but Mike Riley's team has had a very good season. Perhaps Stanford's win last week showed some tips to slow down Oregon's offense.

• The Mountain West has Fresno State, San Diego State and Boise State all sitting at 6-1, and two of them can clinch a share of the league championship on Saturday. Tim DeRuyter, a former Air Force player and defensive coordinator, leads Fresno State against Air Force (3:30 p.m. ET), which starts at the same time as San Diego State plays at Wyoming (3:30 p.m. ET). If both of those teams lose, Boise State will be playing for an outright championship next week at Nevada.

• The winner of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game (3:30 p.m. ET) will be alive for a Big 12 championship, thanks to Kansas State's loss last week. But the Bedlam rivalry is always big, no matter the conference standings, and Oklahoma State defensive end Cooper Bassett did a great job explaining it to O-StateIllustrated.com:

"I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma, and I bled orange. Everyone was so excited as a little kid, I remember being either pumped or dreading the next Monday at school because you're so excited if your team wins and you're wearing everything orange to school. You're going to rub it in all of your Oklahoma friends' faces if you win. If the Gooners beat you, you're dreading going to school because you're going to get it the whole time. It's really like that though. I had people coming up to me after the game last year telling me that their fifty and sixty year-old grandparents cried after the game because it meant so much to them. Not just that we beat OU, but to win the Big 12 Championship. That unfolded in the perfect scenario for us, but it's a huge game even without that."

•Mississippi and Mississippi State play in the annual Egg Bowl (7 p.m. ET) and there are plenty of additional storylines. Mississippi is 5-6 and needs a win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2009.  Mississippi State is trying to win its fourth straight in the rivalry, something it hasn't done since the 1940s.

This is the type of rivalry, like many others played this weekend, in which the outcome of the most recent game lingers at all times:

"I've tried to put it in the past, but it still hangs back there, and I'm ready to do something about it," Ole Miss sophomore safety Cody Prewitt said, according to RebelGrove.com. "It's been on the back burner. I focus on the games we have as they come, but this one has been on my mind all season."

• South Carolina and Clemson (7 p.m. ET) might get lost a little bit nationally, and that's a shame. This might be the best game of the day.

South Carolina's back-to-back losses to LSU and Florida knocked it out of the national title conversation. Clemson understands. The Tigers have won 10 games, and only one was by less than two touchdowns, yet its loss to Florida State on Sept. 22 rendered it mostly an afterthought in the BCS race and in the ACC's Atlantic Division.

That doesn't mean these aren't two very good teams who will play a great rivalry game.

The funny thing about the rivalry is South Carolina has done better after Steve Spurrier came and downplayed its importance. The Gamecocks could win their fourth straight game in the series, something that has happened only once, in 1951-54. Spurrier said when he took the South Carolina job, he heard from fans who told him that they'd be happy if they won just one game a year if it was against Clemson.

''I said, 'My thoughts are the opposite. I'd rather win them all and lose to Clemson if that was the choice,'" Spurrier said according to the Associated Press. ''My belief is you don't talk about one team the entire year. We take it seriously, but we don't talk about beating Clemson all year long anymore.''

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