Fighting Irish Can Cheer

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o celebrates the Irish's 21-13 win over USC. Getty Images

Cheer, cheer indeed for Old Notre Dame.

And then accept the cold reality of its return to college football's big stage: The Southeastern Conference awaits.

Some 4½ hours before the Fighting Irish locked in on one berth in the Bowl Championship Series' title game, winning 22-13 at Southern California to complete a perfect regular season, the SEC had called dibs on the other Saturday. Alabama crushed Auburn, and Georgia rolled past Georgia Tech. It set up a de facto national championship semifinal in the SEC title game in Atlanta, where the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs meet next weekend.

The winner almost certainly moves on to Miami.

Notre Dame remained atop the BCS standings released Sunday, destined to be there when the final BCS rankings are compiled in another week. Alabama and Georgia are ranked 2-3. Lest you wonder whether something ugly or flukish in Atlanta could submarine both the Tide and Dawgs, understand that yet another SEC team -- Florida -- sits behind them at No. 4.

The league has famously won the last six BCS title games, but its transcendence goes beyond that. Starting with Tennessee at the end of the 1998 season, the SEC has placed nine teams in the championship game in the past 14 years. They've gone 8-1, the only loss by LSU in an all-SEC showdown with Alabama last January.

Notre Dame hasn't faced an SEC team since the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2006 season, when the Brady Quinn-led Irish fell 41-14 to LSU.

Alabama quickly worked its way back this season from a Nov. 10 defeat against Texas A&M. The more improbable championship aspirant is Georgia, which didn't merely lose to South Carolina the first weekend in October. The Bulldogs were dominated, 35-7, scoring a touchdown in the final two minutes to avert the indignity of a shutout. A week later, they were a modest 11th in the first BCS standings.

But they benefitted from a less-than-taxing remaining schedule and a 17-9 victory against the most notable opponent on it, Florida. Save for Notre Dame, every team above the Bulldogs in the BCS rankings lost.

Florida, meanwhile, will be left to rue the six turnovers it fed into that loss to Georgia. The Gators (11-1 like 'Bama and Georgia) own arguably the most impressive collection of wins in the country -- against Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Florida State, which otherwise have gone a collective 40-4.

Itemized deductions

Item: Ahem, Ohio State.

Deduction: A month or so back, it was easy to discount the Buckeyes' perfect record. The Big Ten was struggling. Their defense was suspect. They had a spate of close calls. But coach Urban Meyer wasn't altogether unjustified in maintaining after Saturday's 26-21 win over Michigan that "at this point in time, Ohio State can go and play with anybody in America."

That's because of the Buckeyes' giant strides on defense. They allowed less than three yards a rush, a 57 percent pass completion rate and an average of 303 yards of total offense in their last five games, the latter down from 400 yards in their first seven games. Michigan was shut out in the second half.

Hopes of making a national championship claim via the Associated Press media poll are nonetheless all but dead. Fourth-ranked Ohio State sits behind Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia. The USA TODAY coaches' poll is off limits because of NCAA sanctions, and so is the postseason. A 12-0 finish and championship of the Big Ten's Leaders Division will have to do.

Item: Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin puts in his two cents' worth to Heisman Trophy voters. "It doesn't matter what year you are when you're talking about those numbers and the league we are (in)," he says, plugging the Aggies' Johnny Manziel.

Deduction: The league is the Big 12, which delivered Baylor's Robert Griffin III as last year's Heisman winner. And Manziel's redshirt freshman-year numbers are remarkably similar to RGIII's: 4,600 yards and 43 touchdowns running and passing through 12 regular-season games, compared with Griffin's 4,642 yards and 46 TDs.

Manziel's total yardage is an SEC record. His closing Heisman statement was a 439-yard, five-TD performance in Saturday's 59-29 rout of Missouri.

It pushed the Aggies' record in their first season in the SEC to an overall 10-2. Griffin and Baylor finished their regular season 9-3.

Item: Penn State's Sam Ficken nails all three of his field goal attempts against Wisconsin, including a 37-yarder in overtime that proves to be the difference in a 24-21 win. Georgia's Aaron Murray closes the regular season as the nation's top-rated quarterback.

Deduction: Bully for both of them after taking fan-base beatings early in the season. Ficken, who was brutalized in social media after missing four kicks in a second-week loss to Virginia, wound up hitting his last 10 attempts of the season and 12 of his last 13 (albeit none beyond 38 yards).

"There are a lot of examples like Sam Ficken on this football team that really just worked at it and improved all year," coach Bill O'Brien said after the overachieving Nittany Lions picked themselves up from the university scandal to finish 8-4.

Murray returned home from the Oct. 6 loss to South Carolina to find his house egged and covered in toilet paper. With Saturday's 14-for-17, 215-yard, two-TD performance against Georgia Tech, he finished the regular season with a 67 percent completion rate, 3,201 yards, 30 TDs and just seven interceptions.

He's the first SEC quarterback to top 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, and his 89 career TDs tie him for second in league history with Peyton Manning -- both behind Danny Wuerffel's 114 at Florida.

Item: Six years after winning just a single game, and four years after hiring Gary Anderson as coach, Utah State claims its first outright conference championship -- in the Western Athletic -- in more than three-quarters of a century.

Deduction: The Aggies made more history than that in pounding Idaho 45-9. They registered their first 10-win season (at 10-2) in the 114 years that the school has played football. They're headed to an attractive matchup in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl vs. Mid-American champion Northern Illinois or Kent State on Dec. 15.

Next season, they'll move on from the WAC to the Mountain West.