This might be the top five defining moments for coach Brian Kelly. Te'o easily could have entered the NFL Draft and be raking in millions of dollars while wreaking havoc on professional running backs. Instead, the native of Hawaii opted to return to South Bend, Ind., and do the same for the Fighting Irish.
Not only is Te'o the heart and soul of the defense, Notre Dame's All-American linebacker lived up to his preseason hype by nearly winning the Heisman Trophy.
How important is Te'o to the Irish defense? His 103 tackles are 40 more than the next-best Irish defender and he has seven interceptions. You can't overstate his importance to Notre Dame.
A redshirt freshman, Golson spent 2011 running Notre Dame's scout team. A year later, the Irish are counting on him to lead them past Alabama and to the national championship. Kelly turned the offense over to the Myrtle Beach, S.C. native in the first game and Golson has been efficient throughout the season with 11 touchdown passes and 5 interceptions.
Kelley said Golson has made strides in operating Notre Dame's red zone offense but remains a work in progress.
"Everett obviously was learning along the season, and he's gotten better as we've gotten closer," Kelly said. "We think we've addressed (red zone) through just maturity and understanding."
Kelly said he thinks Golson is ready for the biggest stage of his career after starting games at at Southern Cal, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
It was obvious Notre Dame's front seven on defense were outstanding, btu there was plenty of uncertainty behing that. Notre Dame's secondary features three former wide receivers turned defensive backs, yet it has become a strength of the team. Kelly credits cornerbacks coach Kerry Cook and first-year safeties coach Bob Elliott with helping transform the secondary into a solid corps.
"Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks have done an incredbile job back there in developing those players. If you take a true freshman and a yo take a senior and they are playing their best football at the end of the year, that says a lot about the coaching and development that they had under Bob and Kerry," Kelly said. "We would not be where we are without those coaches developing those players to the level they are today."
Notre Dame's pass defense allows 194.4 yards per game to rank 20th nationally.
Notre Dame's sophomore kicker has been called on quite a bit this season. He's made 23 of 31 field goals, including a 52-yarder. While that's a 74-percent success rate, Brindza's timing has been impeccable.
He kicked the game-winner with seven seconds to play the second week of the season to beat Purdue 20-17, had two more in a 13-6 win against Michigan and another key make in a comeback against BYU.
Brindza saved the day against Stanford, kicking a 22-yard field goal with 20 seconds to play, to get the game to overtime and his 37-yarder against Pittsburgh sent the game to a second overtime. In the finale against USC, Brindza kicked a pair of second-half field goals to keep the Irish's lead at nine points.
With Golson shaken up and having a sub-par day, Rees, the 2011 starting QB, came on late against Purdue with the Irish tied at 17 late in the fourth quarter.
he was efficient, driving the Irish 55 yards in 2 minutes, 5 seconds, to set up Brindza's short winning field goal.
Rees was coming off a one-game suspension for his arrest in a skirmish after a party in May, but he didn't look rusty on Notre Dame's final drive.
Two of his three completions resulted in first downs — a 10-yard pass to John Goodman and a 21-yard strike to Robby Toma — to setup Brindza for the game-winner.
Notre Dame stopped Stanford's Stepfan Taylor short of the end zone on four straight plays in overtime to take a 20-13 slugfest against No. 17 Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium.
Brindza's field goal with 20 seconds to play forced overtime, and Tommy Rees gave Notre Dame a 20-13 lead with a 7-yard pass to T.J. Jones on the Irish's possession in OT. That set the stage for Notre Dame's dramatic stand.
With a first-and-goal at the ND 4, Taylor, Stanford's start running back gained a yard on first down, two more on second down and about a foot on third down.
On fourth down, Taylor tried the middle, lunging for the goal line. He was knocked back but tried to stretch the ball over the goal line. His knee never touched the ground but officials whistled the play over. A replay confirmed the no-touchdown call and the Irish escaped, keeping their winning streak intact.
Just a week after the Stanford escape, Notre Dame used a bruising ground game, grinding out 270 yards against BYU's No. 3-ranked rushing defense to win 17-14.
George Atkinson had only 11 of those yards, but he gained the two most important when he scored on a 2-yard run early in the fourth quarter to provide the winning points.
With Golson sidelined and Rees starting in his place, the Irish turend to Theo Reddick, who rushed for 143 yards, and Cierre Wood, who added 114 yards, to get the win.
Rees was a pedestrian 8 of 16 for 117 yards with one TD pass and one INT, but the rushing attack and a defense that held BYU to 243 yards was more than enough for the Irish to grab the win.
Sitting at No. 5, there were plenty of naysayers as Notre Dame faced a critical game at Oklahoma. The Sooners came in ranked No. 8 but it was the underdog Irish who came away with a 30-13 win, solidifying their claim as a national title contender.
The win wasn't as easy as it appeared in the final score. The Irish scored the game's final 17 points in five minutes, sandwiching touchdown runs from Golson and Riddick around Brindza's field goal.
After winning at Oklahoma, the No. 4 Irish saw their season almost come to a crashing halt at home against underachieving Pitt, which had a 4-4 record going into the game. The Panthers proved to be a worthy foe, and only a 14-point, fourth-quarter rally prevented Notre Dame from becoming an upset victimr.
Golson, removed earlier in the game for missing reads, threw two TD passes in the final quarter, then eventually scored the game-winning TD on a 1-yard run in the third overtime, to lift the Irish.
Teo summed up the win to the Associated Press this way: "It was ugly at times, beautiful at times. It's college football. I'm just glad the outcome was the way it was."
All the Irish needed to punch their BCS ticket was a win in the Coliseum against an underachieving South Cal team. It took another magnificent goal-line stand and a 22-13 win to get it. Trailing by nine points late in the fourth quarter, Lane Kiffin's Trojans drove to a first down at the ND 1. Three rushes into the middle of the defense yielded only inches and wasted precious time. On fourth down, freshman Max Wittek threw incomplete. With the threat removed, Notre Dame began its BCS bid celebration.
Riddick scored the only Irish touchdown, but Brindza came through with five field goals as the Irish completed their first unbeaten regular season since 1988.