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Why Notre Dame is the most fascinating team in college football right now

Twelve years ago this week, USC went to Notre Dame. This is how it ended.

12 years ago in South Bend...#BeatTheIrish |

— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) October 20, 2017

Many people took this near miss as evidence was Notre Dame was BACK -- most importantly, Notre Dame itself. Despite the the fact the Irish lost the game, Notre Dame had seen enough of Charlie Weis that it mortgaged its future over to him, an extension that is remembered as the worst contract ever awarded by a college football program.

It would be seven years before Notre Dame appeared BACK again. The Irish ran through the 2012 regular season undefeated and reached the penultimate BCS National Championship opposite Alabama, and the Tide revealed Notre Dame to have been the fourth- or fifth-best team in college football that season, not the first or second.

And this brings us to Saturday. Notre Dame is in a peculiar and unfamiliar position -- overlooked and underrated. The Irish are 5-1 and ranked 13th in the country, seventh in the derby of 1-loss teams and two spots behind Saturday night's opponent -- USC. Last season's 4-8 finish has a lot to do with that, but the 2017 Irish appear nothing like the 2016 version. Brian Kelly promised to overhaul his program over the offseason and, so far, it appears he has.

Last year's team finished in the middle of the country -- 62nd -- in rushing, at 163.3 yards per game and 4.47 per carry. This year's team, led by offensive coordinator Chip Long, whom Kelly hired away from Memphis, has rolled up 308 yards per game, trailing only Army, Navy, Georgia Tech and an Arizona team that has exploded over the past few weeks thanks to a quarterback no one has figured out yet. Their 6.9 yards per carry average is third nationally.

On defense, coordinator Mike Elko, hired away from Wake Forest, has boosted Notre Dame from 72nd to 42nd in rushing and from 79th to 26th in pass efficiency defense. The Irish have surrendered only one rushing touchdown in 219 opponent carries -- the fewest in the country.

Most importantly, a team that finished 93rd in turnover margin last season (despite starting future NFL starter DeShone Kizer at quarterback) has leapfrogged all the way to ninth. Their giveaways have been cut in half, and the 2017 Notre Dame team has matched the 2016 squad's takeaways in half as many games.

The Irish's first half included a close loss to Georgia that looks better with each week and a blowout win over Michigan State that doubled in value once the Spartans won in the Big House.

Still, it's fair to be skeptical. Notre Dame was actually out-gained by 150 yards in that Michigan State win (a 3-0 turnover margin tends to do that), and it's always wise to beware of a team whose best "win" is actually a close loss.

That's what makes Notre Dame such an interesting team to study. The second half schedule is the toughest in the country: three top-16 teams, plus a rapidly improving Stanford, plus a possible AAC champion Navy, plus a likely bowl team in Wake Forest.

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An 11-1 Notre Dame would absolutely jump ahead of the Pac-12 champion and put itself in prime position to reach the College Football Playoff if and when the Big 12 cannibalizes itself.

That's not to say that's going to happen. There's an obvious temptation to crown Notre Dame before the Irish truly deserve it -- and no one should be wary of that danger more than Notre Dame itself.