2012 Notre Dame regular-season wrap

Where do we begin? The spring, when a freshman All-America transferred to South Florida? Right after the Blue and Gold game, when the incumbent starting quarterback and a starting linebacker were arrested at an off-campus party?

How about fall camp, when one of two inexperienced starting corners ruptured his Achilles, months after a contributing safety underwent shoulder surgery that ended up sidelining him this season?

Notre Dame entered the 2012 season with questions under center, with very little experience in the secondary -- and even less when Jamoris Slaughter went down for the season Week 3 at Michigan State -- and with a schedule on deck that, on the surface, seemed as challenging as any in recent memory.

Twelve games later, the Irish stand undefeated and No. 1 in the country, awaiting their Jan. 7 date with defending champion Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship Game. Brian Kelly has already worked his best job to date in a 22-year career that features championships at every level at which he has been a head coach.

The offense is led by a redshirt freshman quarterback who is only just beginning to realize his potential. The defense is led by a Heisman Trophy finalist who is as strong of a leader this program has had in decades, and its coordinator is one of the hottest names in coaching circles after the Irish led the nation in scoring defense.

That third-year coaching stigma around Notre Dame, the idea that something special happens in every strong leader's third year, from Frank Leahy to Dan Devine to Ara Parseghian to Lou Holtz? Maybe there is something to that, as Kelly has the Irish on the doorstep of a national title after consecutive 8-5 seasons.

Notre Dame entered the season unranked. It had dates with three top-10 teams, and five top-25 teams, with three coming on the road.

The Irish dealt No. 10 Michigan State its first blow of many this season. They turned the tables on Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan, a reversal of recent years. They beat No. 17 Stanford with a goal-line stand, a stark contrast in physicality between the two teams from past meetings. They won at No. 8 Oklahoma, and they won three games after that, setting up a showdown with their archrival.

USC entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country, with many of us viewing the teams' regular-season finale as a chance for the Irish to maybe play spoiler against the Trojans.

The Irish instead entered that finale as the nation's No. 1 team, with the Trojans unranked. Notre Dame won, delivering USC its fifth loss of the season.

How wrong we all were.

Offensive MVP: Tough choice, but I'll go with Theo Riddick. The senior has played all over the field during his career before finally settling into the hybrid role of running back and slot receiver. He established himself as the Irish's No. 1 back while Cierre Wood was suspended during the season's first two games, and he leads the team with 880 rushing yards and five touchdowns, while adding 35 catches for 364 yards and a touchdown. Tyler Eifert is the bigger name and will be a high-round draft pick, but his numbers became a casualty of an offense that was still developing early in the season.

Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o is the obvious choice here, as he is one of three Heisman Trophy finalists and leads the team with 103 tackles, seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries. He deserves all of the credit he gets, but let's not overlook the efforts of Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt up front, too. Nix might be one of the most underrated players in the country -- as inside linemen usually are -- while Tuitt made many forget about Aaron Lynch by recording 12 sacks this season.

Newcomer of the year: KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back, and he didn't get to campus until June. Then projected starting cornerback Lo Wood ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp, and Russell surged to the top of the depth chart at corner, before making an impact in his first season. He played outstanding on a big stage at Oklahoma and has made many forget that he is a first-year player.

Biggest surprise: Raise your hand if you thought, after four weeks and two yankings, that Everett Golson would be leading an undefeated Irish team at USC in the regular-season finale. The redshirt freshman quarterback's rise has been perhaps the biggest development for this Irish offense, as he has steadily grown while the playbook has steadily opened. He has become a bigger threat with his legs, has handled the bright lights well and, best of all for Notre Dame, has upward of 40 remaining college starts.

Biggest disappointment: We're getting picky here with a 12-0 team that is ranked first in the country, but there is room for improvement. How about the punt-return game, which, while not losing Irish yards the way it often did last year, has never really gotten going under true freshman Davonte' Neal, with the Irish ranking 115th nationally in punt returns, averaging 2.44 yards per return. Red zone offense, ranked 75th nationally, has room for improvement as well.

Best game: The end of the Stanford game, on Oct. 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, was out of a movie scene. Heavy rain, power against power, deafening roars from the home fans. Football at its purest element was on display, with the Irish winning their sixth game with a goal-line stand against a Cardinal team that had simply outmuscled Notre Dame in recent matchups.