Notre Dame has returned in style

Originally Published: October 27, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

NORMAN, Okla. -- Notre Dame's style of football is as fashionable as a crew cut, as stylish as an Oldsmobile. And if those references seem out of date, that's because it has been some time since the Fighting Irish have been relevant this late in the college football season. Relevant, as in crystal-football relevant.

That's right, boys and girls: This is what the fuss is all about. All of you who have wondered for the past decade, when Fighting Irish became a synonym for 7-6, why so much attention is paid to the guys with golden helmets, buckle your seat belts.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBrian Kelly doesn't want his players listening to any talk about the Irish and the chances of a BCS title.

After the way that No. 5 Notre Dame came into Memorial Stadium and dismantled No. 8 Oklahoma, 30-13, the Fighting Irish are back, and they will bring to the BCS everything that BCS haters love to hate.

When Notre Dame is in the national championship discussion, the college football world spins a little faster. For the next five weeks, the attention that will be directed toward the Irish will be easy to understand -- and hard to digest.

Notre Dame, like the New York Yankees, evokes strong emotions. Unlike the Yankees, however, the Irish are now in a beauty pageant. (And, unlike the Yankees, the Irish can hit. But that's another story.) On its best days, the BCS selects the teams that play for the national championship by the use of -- let's use a 21st-century word -- crowdsourcing.

When the Irish are struggling to maintain a winning record, it's easy to forget the emotions that they stir up in those crowds. We're all about to get a crash course. And what a shame. If the Irish just stayed 7-6 for two more seasons, we would never again have to risk a BCS debate with Notre Dame in it.

We will hear it all this season. Notre Dame proved Saturday night that it plays the best defense north of Tuscaloosa. And maybe including Tuscaloosa, too. The Irish held the Sooners, who had averaged 44.67 points per game, to a touchdown and two field goals. They held the Sooners, who had averaged a few inches less than 200 rushing yards per game, to 15 yards on 24 carries.

Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones threw for 356 yards, but most of that occurred between the 20-yard lines. He didn't come close to throwing a touchdown pass. He did throw an interception, but only because 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker Manti Te'o executed a dive worthy of an San Francisco Giants outfielder and scooped up a deflected pass just before it hit the grass. That's five interceptions for Te'o, for you Heisman voters keeping score.

"We were going to give up yards to keep the points down," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "We could not let the points get out of reach for us. This was the first time we showed we could … put some points on the board. But we could not have won this football game if the points got up in the numbers that were probably out of reach for our offense."

Speaking of things that have fallen out of fashion, Notre Dame gave "Bend, don't break," a good name. But that only works when a defense doesn't make mistakes.

The Irish's defense does the big things well, such as keep the other team out of its end zone. Only the Sooners' Belldozer offense, in which 6-6, 254-pound backup quarterback Blake Bell makes the ground shake, could coerce Notre Dame into allowing its first rushing touchdown of the year. And it even took him two possessions to do it.

The Irish's defense does the big things well because it does the little things well. Such as line up correctly. And shed blocks. And tackle. Man, do the Irish tackle. It won't take long to add up the Sooner receivers' yards after catch. The estimate here is that whoever adds the YACs won't need more than his fingers and toes.

So the Irish play defense like few other teams. Their credentials don't need the artificial gleam of the helmets they wore Saturday night, which looked as though they were on loan from the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree.

And yet, as the BCS politicking commences among the top four undefeated teams -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Kansas State, No. 4 Oregon and the Irish -- everything will be up for debate. Notre Dame's issue is that Saturday night will represent its high point, perhaps for the rest of the season.

The next three opponents -- Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College -- don't have a winning record among them. And between USC's loss to Arizona and its game next week against the Ducks, the Trojans may not be ranked by the time the Irish arrive in Los Angeles.

The schedule may recede like a bad set of gums, but that will only increase the debate about the Irish. Notre Dame's problem is that Alabama looks invincible and Oregon has games remaining against USC, No. 17 Stanford and No. 7 Oregon State. If the Ducks pummel the Trojans and the Cardinal, both of which are on the Notre Dame schedule, the Irish will suffer by comparison.

Before the argument envelopes us all, let us take a collective deep breath and listen to Kelly.

"If we start listening to 'national championship' and 'BCS,' we'll lose a football game," Kelly said. "They're a pretty smart group. They know if they stick with what we've done, and stick with the process of just preparing for Pittsburgh, they'll be fine. If they start thinking about all those other things and listening, we'll lose."

Junior corner Bennett Jackson said there's a sign in the Notre Dame locker room that reads, "Ignore the noise." As the annual BCS debate begins for the -- praise the heavens -- penultimate time, those are words for all of us to live by.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com