Notre Dame's play for freedom

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- For as many questions as Notre Dame's football team faced entering this season -- and for a team whose starting quarterback got arrested, whose freshman All-American end transferred, whose secondary was undergoing a makeover and whose schedule seemed daunting, there were plenty of them -- the Fighting Irish were facing every bit as many off-the-field uncertainties about their piece in the college football picture.

How would Notre Dame fit into the new playoff format? Was its independence viable? What about the potential collapse of the Big East?

The answers came during a six-month course that saw the Irish gain access to college football's new postseason and broker a deal with the ACC that allowed the football team to maintain its independence. Then, they further validated their presence at the adults' table by restoring the glory on the field, running the table en route to a 12-0 record, No. 1 ranking and spot in the Discover BCS National Championship on Jan. 7 against reigning champion Alabama.

Notre Dame also topped the NCAA's graduation success rate figures, becoming the first school to be atop that list and the BCS standings simultaneously.

"Two things stand out. Before the season started, before we had won one football game, we were able to gain access to the final four," coach Brian Kelly said. "So I think everything that led up to this season still made it clear that Notre Dame had a seat at that table. After winning this year and showing that we can win nationally against perennially great programs, I think it just secured our philosophy of being an independent and being part of the national landscape.

"So two things came together: One, that we had that seat before the season started, and then we strengthened that decision by going undefeated. I think those are the two things that came together this year for us."

To read more, click here.