FORT WAYNE — This season has been one of unexpected success for the Notre Dame football team.
The Irish were unranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25, although they were No. 24 in the USA Today coaches’ poll.
But Notre Dame (12-0) defied expectations by completing its first undefeated regular season since 1988 with a 22-13 win over USC on Saturday, and now the Irish await an opponent for the Jan. 7 BCS championship game in Miami.
However, former Notre Dame player Mike Golic, co-host of ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning,” and athletic director Jack Swarbrick saw the team’s potential early in the season.
Golic said he started to dream about a perfect season when the Irish defeated Michigan State 20-3 in East Lansing in Week 3.
“In watching a lot of the games over the last few years, one thing that had always really happened for the most part was that a game against Michigan State was always a very, very difficult game,” said Golic, whose sons Mike Jr. and Jake play for Notre Dame. “When we went to them this year and really kind of shut them down. The defense really, really took it to them and the offense put some points on the board.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, we really took it to them, and normally that’s a very, very competitive game.’ I really started to see just how good that defense could be.”
Golic’s belief that the Irish were destined for a special year built the next week when Notre Dame ended a three-year losing streak to Michigan with a 13-6 home victory.
The 30-13 victory over then-No. 8 Oklahoma in Norman on Oct. 27 boosted Golic’s confidence, but he was also made aware of the potential for a fall when the Irish needed three overtimes to defeat Pittsburgh 29-26 on Nov. 3 at home.
“(Michigan) had scored a lot of points and were making a lot of big plays, and our defense shut them down,” Golic said. “And certainly, the trip to Oklahoma when nobody on God’s green Earth thought we were going to go there and win that game; then we went there and did it somewhat convincingly. I thought that was certainly something, to say if we just take care of what we need to do then we will be OK.
“But then you get scares like Pittsburgh, a team you should be able to handle and you go to three overtimes and you are like, ‘OK, that is how it works. Any one week, you can screw it up.’ ”
Swarbrick said he saw a special season starting to form when Notre Dame defeated Stanford 20-13 in overtime Oct. 13.
“I thought Stanford was the test,” Swarbrick said. “I just think in the past two years, they were more physical than we were, bigger and tougher than we were. I thought that is going to be our benchmark.”
Notre Dame overcame two deficits to beat Stanford for the first time in four years, and the Irish made a goal-line stand by stopping the Cardinal at the 1-yard line twice in overtime.
“When we survived that, especially the way we did, that’s when I thought we had a chance,” Swarbrick said.
Note: Former Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, 89, will be recognized for his contribution to the sport by the National College Football Awards Association.
Parseghian coached the Irish from 1964 to 1974, leading them to national championships in 1966 and 1973, posting a 95-17-4 record in 11 seasons.
He helped establish the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation to work on a treatment for Niemann-Pick Type C, a rare and deadly disease that primarily strikes children. He lost three grandchildren to the disease.
The foundation has raised more than $40 million for research.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.