Irish No. 1 for first time in BCS era

The echoes have received their wake-up call. For the first time in the BCS era, Notre Dame sits atop the college football world.

After a wonderful weekend for Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish in South Bend and elsewhere, Notre Dame ranks No. 1 in the latest BCS standings -- a first for the program. The Irish no longer have to win a beauty contest against fellow unbeatens Kansas State and Oregon, both of which stumbled Saturday night. The nation’s only other perfect team, Ohio State, is ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions. Notre Dame is No. 1 in both human polls and No. 1 in all six computer ratings systems.

After stumbling badly in its three BCS bowl appearances and making quick exits from the national title talk since the system launched in 1998, Notre Dame is finally where it wants to be. The program is no longer living off of its past. It’s all about the here and now.

All that separates the Irish from the BCS title game Jan. 7 in Miami is a win this coming Saturday against archrival USC in Los Angeles, who will be without star quarterback Matt Barkley.

You couldn’t have scripted it better for Notre Dame and its Heisman Trophy candidate, linebacker Manti Te'o, who surprised many by choosing the Irish ahead of USC coming out of high school in Hawaii.

Te’o and his fellow seniors went out on top in their final home game at Notre Dame Stadium, thrashing Wake Forest 38-0. But the day only got better as Baylor pummeled Kansas State, knocking the Wildcats out of the title chase and possibly quarterback Collin Klein off the Heisman radar. Another surprise arrived Saturday night at Autzen Stadium as Stanford, a team Notre Dame beat Oct. 13 in overtime, stunned Oregon in an extra session.

It’s all right there for Notre Dame. Many expected the Notre Dame-USC game to shape the national title race before the season. Few expected Notre Dame to be the team in the mix, and USC to be the team in chaos. The talent-stocked Trojans have managed to lose four games. There will be no crystal football in Heritage Hall this season, or even a Rose Bowl championship trophy. Notre Dame can deliver the final blow and send itself to the title game in the process.

Who else loved Week 12 besides the Domers? Everyone in SEC country. We wisely didn’t sign the SEC’s death warrant after Week 11, and now the league is alive and well in the title chase after a Saturday of crushing tomato cans.

While Notre Dame has to win at USC to get to Miami, it’s a virtual certainty an SEC team will be there as the league occupies the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 7 spots in the BCS standings. As long as Alabama and Georgia don’t stumble this week against rivals Auburn and Georgia Tech, respectively, their SEC championship matchup will serve as a national semifinal. Florida likely needs losses by both the Tide and the Bulldogs to have a chance, but the Gators can help themselves by beating No. 10 Florida State in Tallahassee.

No. 5 Oregon and No. 6 Kansas State shouldn’t be dismissed from the title talk, either, but both teams have become huge fans of USC. The Ducks and Wildcats must hope that a Notre Dame loss and the growing sentiment against another all-SEC title game would propel them back into the discussion. Oregon didn’t take a huge hit in the human polls but remains No. 7 in computer average. The Ducks’ computer numbers should be helped this week in the Civil War against No. 15 Oregon State, but they also need a Stanford loss to UCLA to get into the Pac-12 championship game. Kansas State is still strong in the computers (No. 4 in average) but must wait two long weeks before it can improve its stock on the field when it hosts No. 16 Texas. Oregon and Kansas State would also benefit from Florida losing to FSU.

The latest standings show the SEC is a lock to have multiple BCS bowl entries, and the Pac-12 took a big step toward sending two teams to the big bowls. The ACC and Big 12 are in decent shape, and the much-maligned Big Ten now has two top-20 teams (No. 14 Nebraska and No. 19 Michigan).

But right now, it’s Notre Dame’s world. The Irish have the spotlight they crave, the opponent they crave and the opportunity they crave.

This Saturday night, it’ll be onward to victory and a spot in the title game, or another season waiting for the complete return to glory.