1. How surprised are you with where Notre Dame football is at right now? Did you ever expect, in your wildest dreams, they'd be one win away from the BCS title game?
Surprised is a bit of an understatement. This season came completely out of the blue. Back in August, my "dream season" was 10-2 with losses to Oklahoma and USC. I just wanted the Irish to be competitive in those games. Finally knocking off Stanford and Michigan was great, but going into Norman and beating the Sooners was definitely not something I expected. Even as the wins kept coming, I resigned myself to the fact that Notre Dame probably wasn't going to jump Alabama, Oregon, and Kansas State and get into the national championship. But to have all of them lose in a two week period and actually sit at number one is pretty incredible.
2. Assess Brian Kelly and the job he's done so far this year.
I've always been a Brian Kelly fan and never understood the people who were against hiring him in the first place. I think what we're seeing now is his plans coming to fruition. Even last year, the Irish had a pretty good team but choked away games against USF and Michigan and couldn't overcome playing Tommy Rees at quarterback against USC, Stanford, and Florida State. But now the Irish have a quarterback with real quarterback skills and a defense that has grown into an elite unit. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself because ND fans have seen flash-in-the-pan seasons and flameouts the next year, but I think it's evident that Kelly has put this team in a position to be good in the long-term.
3. Notre Dame's defense has certainly received its fair share of attention, but quarterback Everett Golson has quietly done a solid job leading this team. What's your impression of his play in his first year starting?
Golson has played about as well as I expected for a redshirt freshman. He was a little rough at the beginning of the season - he even had to be benched against Michigan because of a pair of boneheaded interceptions - but he's improved each week. He still holds on to the ball too long sometimes and misses some open receivers, but he has tons of potential and could be a great player down the line.
4. On offense, Riddick and Wood seem to have pretty equal yardage, and Eifert and Jones, too. Is there any particular pattern to how these players are used or is it just a case of splitting carries or receptions?
No, not really. Riddick and Wood are 1A and 1B at the running back position. Riddick is usually used in short yardage situations because he's good at powering ahead for extra yards and is more versatile because of his ability to catch the ball. Wood is much more explosive, averaging over 7 yards a carry.
Eifert is obviously the big name in the Irish passing game, but TJ Jones is quietly putting together a very nice season. Eifert catches almost anything thrown his way and is great on third downs. Even though the Irish don't throw deep a lot, Jones is maybe Notre Dame's best deep threat with DeVaris Daniels hurt.
5. How good is this Fighting Irish defense? Assuming Wittek gets the ball off to Woods or Lee or Agholor - not a guarantee, given his inexperience and the quality of Notre Dame's front seven - who should SC's receivers be worried about in the secondary?
This defense is for real. Bob Diaco has turned the bend-but-don't-break defense into an art form. It usually seems like teams are moving the ball and picking up yards, but then the game ends and they've has only managed around 300 yards and less than 20 points. The Irish have given up a total of nine touchdowns all season, and one of those came on a fumble in the end zone.
Obviously, Lee, Woods, and Agholor present quite the challenge for this defense. I have no doubt those three will pick up yards and probably break a couple big plays. The Irish need to do their best to contain them - especially Lee - and keep them from turning a six yard gain into a sixty yard gain.
Notre Dame's best defensive back is probably safety Zeke Motta, but I really like true freshman KeiVarae Russell. He came to ND as a receiver but switched to corner in the summer. He's been a good player and a sure tackler. I'm sure Kiffin and Wittek will test the true freshman early, so it'll be important that he comes ready to play.
6. What makes Manti Te'o so special and such a force in the middle? Do you believe he has a legitimate shot at winning the Heisman?
Te'o has incredible instincts. He sniffs plays out - especially screens - better than anyone I've seen and has picked off six passes because he's so good at tracking the ball in coverage.
Obviously I think Te'o is a great player, but I don't think he has a legitimate shot at the Heisman. Defensive players don't win it. He'll probably get an invite, which is nice, but I bet Marqise Lee has a better shot than Manti.
7. Prediction on this game? Does Notre Dame ride its defense to another victory and a trip to the BCS title game?
This game scares the pants off of me. I think the Irish can win this game because they're the better overall team, but I worry about Lee's ability to take over this game. For some reason Irish fans are more worried about this game because Barkley is out, but I think it really helps Notre Dame's chances. I'm sure Wittek is a good player, but there's no way he can play as well as Barkley with only nine pass attempts in garbage time under his belt. But I'm sure this game will be close, mostly due to USC's ability to score points and Notre Dame's inability to do the same. I think the Irish defense will contain the Trojan play makers and the offense will do enough to win the game. I'll say the Irish win 24-21.
Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. and will be televised on ABC.