Notre Dame is not supposed to be an undefeated team heading into Saturday's highly anticipated game at Florida State.
This team lost both of its coordinators in the offseason and had to retool with less than expected in the preseason after the suspension of five players (including three projected starters) for alleged academic fraud.
Despite all that, Notre Dame has run the table thus far, is a legit contender for the playoff and has more than a legit shot to beat the Seminoles on the road Saturday.
The biggest reason for the Fighting Irish's success? To me, it starts with Everett Golson, but there's also no denying that Brian Kelly can flat-out coach, and this isn't news to me. I begged my alma mater, Tennessee, to make a run at Kelly, then the head coach at Cincinnati, before Tennessee hired Lane Kiffin in 2009. That's not a shot at Kiffin -- I just believed Kelly was truly a special coach. Kelly's teams never are intimidated. They're tough-minded, and I expect we'll see that again on Saturday.
As for Golson, I've said this before, but it bears repeating -- I've never seen a player sit out a college football season and return showing as much improvement as Golson has this year. We know the reason he sat out the 2013 campaign -- a suspension for an academic violation. Golson owned up to the mistake and chose to stay at Notre Dame. That couldn't have been an easy thing. At a school that values academics like Notre Dame, someone who has been labeled an academic fraud isn't always made to feel welcome by those on campus. There are plenty of people there who don't think he should have been allowed to stay. Golson faces that music everyday.
I don't think he deserves points for that, but it does take a certain amount of fortitude to steel yourself and go back into that situation when it would have been easy to exit and start fresh somewhere else.
It's been truly impressive to see how his skills improved in that time off, though. He's a much more accurate passer, a better decision maker and a stronger runner. Now, he must clean up his game when it comes to turnovers (he's had nine in the past three games), but he's also made big plays when Notre Dame has needed them. If he's not around, Notre Dame isn't undefeated. This team will go as far as Golson can carry it.
That said, if Golson turns it over a few times against FSU, it's over.
Notre Dame isn't without cause for concern going into Saturday's game. The offensive line has been a bit of a jumble and the running game hasn't been as effective as you'd like to see. The defense has played better than expected -- although it struggled against North Carolina last week -- under new coordinator Brian VanGorder, who oversees an attacking, pressure scheme.
I still think FSU is a better team if -- and it's a big "if" -- it plays to its potential. We have not seen FSU put together full games very often this year, but it has yet to cost them a win. If the Seminoles play unevenly again on Saturday, the outcome could be different this time.