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Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Notre Dame regular season recap

By Brian Bennett

Notre Dame football always seems to lend itself to the what-if game.

What if Dayne Crist doesn't get hurt in the first half against Michigan? What if "Little Giants," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio's bold fake field goal play in overtime, doesn't succeed? What if Brian Kelly simply played for the field goal at the end against Tulsa?

This Irish team could have won 10 games instead of seven had those things gone the other way. But this season also lends itself to the how-about game.

How about that November, when Notre Dame smoked Utah and Army before gaining a long-awaited win at USC in the finale? How about that defense, which gave up just two touchdowns in the final four games and shockingly developed into a force? How about Tommy Rees going 3-0 at quarterback as a true freshman, or the other many fill-ins who played above expectations after a rash of injuries?

Ten wins? Heck, this team could also have four wins. Few predicted a fantastic finish after the Navy and Tulsa losses and the emotional drain of the Declan Sullivan tragedy. The season looked to be spiraling away.

But all Kelly's talk about returning to the spirit of the Fighting Irish proved not to be just bluster. This team really did show a fight and a toughness when things were at their lowest point. Instead of wondering what could have been, marvel at what was and what might be in the future.

Offensive MVP: Michael Floyd

In a year where injuries struck at quarterback, running back, tight end and slot receiver, Floyd was a relative constant while missing only one game. He had 73 catches for 916 yards and 10 touchdowns and was the team's most reliable big-play threat.

Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o

Nose tackle Ian Williams was having an MVP-type year before he got hurt. Te'o just tackled everything in sight, finishing with a whopping 127 tackles and getting better as the season wore on. Stardom has arrived for the sophomore.

Turning point: November. Back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa were demoralizing, the roster was ravaged by injury and Kelly was under fire for Sullivan's death. But as the calendar flipped, so did the Irish. They beat Utah 28-3, Army 27-3 and USC 20-16 in a fantastic final flourish.

What's next: One of the most anticipated bowl duels between 7-5 teams ever as the Irish take on Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Getting to a bowl game was important so Kelly could get the extra month of practice to install his system further. He'll try to replenish the roster in the trenches through recruiting after some high-profile decommitments this fall. Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph face decisions on whether to enter the NFL draft. There could be an interesting quarterback duel between Rees and Crist next year. Kelly's teams have traditionally taken off in his second year.