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Steven Holcomb: Olympian, American, Friend May 15, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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Note:  all photos by author unless otherwise stated.

TeamNightTrain2012

Steven Holcomb and his 4-man team, piloting the “Night Train” sled during the second of four runs at the 2012 4-man Bobsled World Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.  Holcomb and the team proceeded to reign victorious in this event, thus further cementing his legacy as the greatest American ever in the sport.

Steven Holcomb, the greatest bobsledder in the history of Team USA, died on Saturday, May 6, 2017.  He was only 37 years old.  Friends found him in his room at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.  An autopsy, which was conducted the following day, gave preliminary indication that the likely cause of death was pulmonary congestion.  He likely died in his sleep.  Toxicology reports indicated zero drugs in his system, as well (hear that, Russia?).

Needless to say, this sad and sudden news has shocked not only the men’s and women’s bobsled and skeleton teams, but also the sliding sports community around the world and the entire U.S. Olympic community.  We have all lost a friend.

His achievements, by the numbers alone, are staggering.  Three Olympic medals (one gold, two bronze); three world championship gold medals (five counting mixed team events); five other World Championship medals; eight overall World Cup trophies (including four outright overall championships); sixty medals in toto.  Since 2009, he was acknowledged as one of the best bobsled drivers in the world.  More interestingly, though, he came to the sport from an unlikely background, and overcame a debilitating physical condition that almost ended his career before it took off in earnest.

Most bobsled athletes come through the track and field ranks.  As long-time bobsled broadcaster John Morgan has often noted, “[Y]ou can teach someone to drive a sled, but you can’t teach speed.”  Within the ranks of track and field, decathletes are prized above all others for their ability to both sprint (e.g., the 100 m sprint and the 110 m hurdles) as well as their ability to throw around weight (e.g., discus and shot put events), which are both key skills when pushing a sled that weighs almost 400 pounds.  The U.S. and Canada also enjoy another sport from which to recruit that most other countries lack – American football.

Ironically, Holcomb followed neither path to the sport he came to love.  A native of Park City, Utah, he was first an alpine skier, starting competitive ski races at the tender age of six, and continued to race for the Park City Ski Team for 12 years.  In this, he was in good company, as the late, legendary bobsled driver Eugenio Monti of Italy (double-gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble) also was a skier before he took up bobsledding.

To be sure, as Holcomb advanced in age, he participated in other local youth sports, such as soccer, football, basketball, baseball, and track and field.  So suffice it to say, he was a formidable all-around athlete.  In 1998, at age 18, he went to a local try-out for the USA Bobsled team, and scored enough points to where he was invited to stay and train with the national team for an additional week.  Though he finished eighth place in pushing competitions, he was passed over for the national team due to his young age and his short stature (he was only 5’-10”, which is roughly my own height!).

An injury on the team later that year led him to be invited back onto the team, where his involvement steadily grew.  He participated as a push athlete for four years, and served as a forerunner for the Olympic events at Park City in 2002.  By 2006, his seven-year stint as a combat engineer in the Utah National Guard had concluded with an honorable discharge, and he then committed himself to the sport full-time.

Not a moment too soon, either.  The men’s bobsled team was shut out of the medals in the 2006 Winter Olympics.  In fact, Holcomb, who piloted the USA-2 team sled, finished sixth in the 4-man event, ahead of Todd Hays in the USA-1 sled.  The overall showing was very disappointing, considering that both Hays’ and Brian Shimer’s sled teams won silver and bronze, respectively, in the 4-man at Salt Lake in 2002, thus ending a 46-year medal drought in the sport for Team USA.  The showing in 2006 was thus a major let-down.

Hays retired from the sport after the ’06 Winter Games, thus passing the torch to Holcomb, known as “Holcy” (holl-key) to his friends.  His full-time devotion to the sport paid off quickly.  At the conclusion of the 2006-2007 World Cup season, he won the 2007 Two-Man World Cup title, the 2007 Combined World Cup title, and finished second in the World Cup standings in the 4-man.  Suffice it to say, the U.S. men’s team had found its leader to take them to the proverbial promised land.

But just when Holcomb’s career in the sport was about to blossom, it almost ended.  He suffered from a degenerative corneal disease called keratoconus.  Basically, he was slowly going blind, and obviously did not want anybody to know.  Ironically, this condition gave him a competitive advantage, up to a point.  His eyesight continuing to decline, he learned to navigate the narrow, icy tracks of the sport more by feel and increasingly less by sight.  But if one went totally blind, not even one’s exceptional ability to feel would be enough to compensate.

As his sight got ever worse, he feared he would be forced to retire, but he still kept it a secret from the team.  Disgusted with his self-deception and depressed with the prospect of his career in bobsled soon ending, he felt like ending it all.  Then, in a Colorado Springs hotel room, after an evening of schmoozing with Olympic team donors, he almost did.  That night, he shoved 73 sleeping pills into his mouth – yes, he counted – and downed them all with the rest of a fifth of whiskey he had been drinking.  He gradually went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, not even leaving so much as a note.

Miraculously, the next morning, he woke up anyhow.  Holcy was the first to acknowledge this miracle, and instantly got the message that he had been given a second chance.  He started by coming clean with everyone about this keratoconus, telling the story about his battle with the disease, raising awareness of it in so doing.  Then, the following year, opthamologist Brian Boxer Wachler corrected his condition with a revolutionary, new treatment that did not even involve surgery.

His eyesight restored, Holcomb’s success on the frozen track continued.  By the 2008-2009 season, things really came together.  For one, the USA-1 team of Holcomb, pushers Justin Olsen, Steve Mesler, and Curt Tomasevicz truly gelled.  For another, they used the season to gradually break in a brand-new sled that the BoDyn program had designed and built for them, a sled that quickly became the envy of the top national teams everywhere.  With its intimidating flat black primer coating, the guys of USA-1 dubbed it the “Night Train,” and with it, they won the FIBT 4-man World Championship, the first time an American team accomplished that feat in literally 50 years (1959).

Team chemistry aided in this great feat, and that too must be credited to Steve Holcomb. His friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp explained the dawn of Holcomb’s innovation.  “A few months before the 2002 Olympics, we were [competing] at the ice house push track in Calgary, trying out new combinations of pushers.  I said [to the coach] ‘[P]ut Steve over there with me, and I’ll show you what we can do!’  We were ‘lightweights’ at the time.  We only weighed 205 pounds each, but we pushed together so well mechanically and we had such good chemistry that we were still able to out-push other combinations….the only reason we didn’t push together in the Olympics that year was because the team coaches kept re-shuffling the teams even after all the push tests.”

Sharp continued:  “Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”  According to Sharp, if a change then needed to be made, they would switch out one pusher and then test the new combination over a number of races to ascertain the effectiveness of the move.  The fact that the coaches listened and enacted this recommendation has shown with the improved start times, of which the late, storied driver was also a part.

It was shortly after Holcomb and his team were world champs for the first time (2009) that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area about 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates who had pushed together often in the same sleds and were usually roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

It was at this time that I first met Steve Holcomb online via Facebook.  His former teammate, Doug Sharp was a fellow Purdue grad, and he and I met while we were both working in the Louisville (Ky.) area around 2006.  He told me about Holcomb at that time, about how the proverbial torch had already been passed to him from Todd Hays, and that great days were ahead for the team.  My friend Doug had done his part in bringing the program back to prominence, as he was a pusher for Brian Shimer’s USA-2 team that won that bronze at Salt Lake in ’02.  He and Holcy had been teammates, and were even roommates during the World Cup tour while their careers overlapped.  They developed a strong friendship in the process.

By the Spring of ’09, I had gathered the courage to reach out to Steve via Facebook, and he quickly responded to my outreach by stating “[A]nyone who’s a friend of Doug’s is a friend of mine!”  Such was the graciousness of Holcomb that he would quickly accept the friendship of a fan he had never met.

In any case, the 2009 World Championship was only a warm-up act.  Not even a drunk driving arrest later in ‘09 could halt his and his teammates’ training focus for what was to come.  The following year, at the Winter Games in Vancouver (specifically the sliding track at Whistler), Holcy and Team Night Train won Gold in the 4-man, ending a 62-year drought at the top of the podium for that event.  Team USA was back as a forced with which to be reckoned in the sport of bobsled.

The significance of this feat was not lost on Holcomb.  Katie Uhlaender, the 2012 Women’s Skeleton world champion and good friend of Holcy noted after his death that on one occasion, he told a fan who asked to see his gold medal, “[I]t’s not my medal, it’s America’s medal.”

Whosever gold medal it was, it made him a Winter Olympics star.  In the months following the huge win, he met with Barack Obama; he golfed with Charles Barkley; he even hung out with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who, yes, were still a couple then.  He threw out a ceremonial pitch at a Cleveland Indians game, visited the New York Stock Exchange, and attended the 2010 Indianapolis 500 (not surprisingly, he was a huge racing fan).

Also in the wake of winning Olympic gold, he published an autobiography:  “But Now I See:  My Journey from Blindness to Olympic Glory”.  It was in this book that he first confessed to the world about his suicide attempt in Colorado Springs that blessedly failed.  He used the story as a way to help others who might have been contemplating something similar, to show them that there are always better solutions.

Though he was a focused, humble, grinder, he was always cheerful.  Bobsledding is a fraternity.  The men and women who compete from different countries may always try to out-race each other on the track, but there remains a respect for everybody – to varying degrees – throughout the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Skeleton.  Competitors throughout the world admired Holcomb for the aforementioned qualities he possessed.  He even came up with the “Holcy dance” around 2009, a less-than-rhythmic shuffle that he did at each race of the World Cup circuit to make fellow competitors laugh and to keep everyone loose while competing.

After having reached the pinnacle of success in his sport at the 2010 Winter Games, it was only natural to anticipate a slump in performance, a let-down.  But despite his drunk driving arrest in ’09 (the judge sentenced him to 180 hours of community service), a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the publicity and endorsements that came with it, even with teammate Steve Mesler retiring after said Olympics, Holcy and Team Night Train continued to maintain their diligent efforts and forge ahead.  They even won bronze at the FIBT 2011 World Championships at the Koenigssee track in southern Germany.

It did not hurt that Steve Langton replaced pusher Steve Mesler upon the latter’s retirement.  Langton worked his way up the team ranks and soon pushed for the USA-2 sled.  By the time he joined Team Night Train, he was considered one of the best push athletes in the world.

As well as Holcomb’s performance continued to be for the 2010-2011 season, he still maintained focus and diligence, as he felt there were still key things yet to achieve.  For one, the United States had never won a world championship in the 2-man event, and he was still out to prove that he could continue to win in the 4-man.  No doubt these were some of the biggest motivating factors as he and the rest of Team Night Train tackled the 2011-2012 season, which culminated in the world championships at a home track, Lake Placid.

As a long-time fan, I saw this serendipitous occasion as my opportunity to travel up there to watch (and photograph) Holcy and the boys in action.  It helped a ton that my friend, Doug Sharp, joined me up there and provided me with insider access that I shall forever treasure.

The weekend prior to my arrival in Lake Placid – home of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics – the 2-man world championship had already taken place, and Holcomb, along with brakeman Steve Langton, had already made history with the U.S.’s first-ever world championship in that event.

But now it was Feb. 25, 2012; time for the 4-man event, the marquee event of all sliding sports.  Holcomb and the rest of the USA-1 team finished the first of four runs in second to Germany-1, but put themselves in the lead after the second run.  As incredibly eventful as the day was, it was far from over after those two runs.  Doug Sharp took the opportunity to visit with his friend and former teammate, and brought me along over to the Olympic Training Center for this blessed opportunity.  There, in a small, garage-like building at the complex, the two of us entered, and there they were.  Despite having two strong runs earlier that day, there was no time to be complacent, as three of the four guys were there, Holcomb included, polishing their sleds’ runners as part of preparations for tomorrow morning’s final two runs.

Naturally, I wasted little time introducing myself in person to Holcy and to everyone else, thanking them for honoring our great nation.  To my amazement, Holcomb actually remembered me from Facebook!  The gratitude I offered to these fine fellows was very well-received, too.  Bobsledding is obviously a niche sport, one that does not attract the massive fan following of NFL or college (American) football, of the NBA, of Major League Baseball, or top-tier professional soccer in Europe and South America, for that matter.  As such, these fellows treasure the relatively few fans they have, and it shows.

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On the evening of Feb. 25, 2012, two old friends caught up on things.  Holcomb, ever the grinder, was visiting with his friend and former teammate, Doug Sharp, while he is polishing one of his sled’s runners for the last two runs of the 2012 4-man World Championship the next morning.

What immediately struck me about Steve Holcomb when I was able to converse with him was how humble he was in his achievements.  Here he was, the most decorated American bobsledder of all time, whose achievements have been without parallel despite a long tradition of American success during earlier eras of the sport.  Yet he acted as if they were no big deal:  what mattered was what he achieved lately, as he kept his nose to the grindstone, maintaining an unshakably calm demeanor all the while.

 

The following morning, Holcomb and Team Night Train picked up where they left off, and maintained their lead through runs 3 and four, winning the world championship in the 4-man event convincingly.  Naturally, many a set of congratulations and ‘atta boys showered upon the team.  Holcomb was on top of the world for his sport, having won the world championship for both the 2-man AND 4-man (again, an unprecedented feat in the history of American bobsledding).  Indeed, he had just won his third gold medal/world championship in the 4-man in a span of only four seasons.

Yet through all the victory celebration and awards ceremonies immediately following the race, what amazed me was Holcomb’s persistently even keel and humility.  Here was a consummate “grinder,” an incredibly focused, diligent person, refusing to let this success or previous successes go to his head.  Naturally, his easy-going demeanor, his understated happiness, and approachability persisted as well.

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Holcomb, flanked by the author and our mutual friend, Doug Sharp, as he hoists the Martineau Cup, the trophy his team won upon winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  Even in victory, Holcomb remained as humble, gracious, and approachable as ever.

Even with this latest pinnacle of achievement, he and his team remained as diligent as ever.  There was always still some other new feat to achieve, some mountain left unclimbed.  A medal at World Cup races at the legendary St. Moritz track in Switzerland (the only natural ice track left on the circuit) continued to elude him, despite his record of success elsewhere.  It just so happened that the World Championships were to be held at this Mecca of a track in 2013.

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Friends, both brand-new and old, together for a group shot during a VIP luncheon in celebration of Holcomb and Team Night Train winning the 2012 4-man World Championship.  L-R:  Frank Briglia, the engineer who designed the cowling for the Night Train sled; Brian Shimer, the coach of the team and driver for the Bronze-winning USA-2 4-man team from the 2002 Winter Olympics; the author; Steven Holcomb; Doug Sharp and Mike Kohn, who together with Shimer won Bronze in 2002.

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The legendary “Night Train” 4-man sled, with which Steven Holcomb and his team won both the 2009 and 2012 World Championships, Bronze in the 2011 World Championship, and Gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver.

That medal continued to elude Holcomb in the 2-man event of the 2013 “Worlds”, putting even more pressure on him in the 4-man event.  But this time, he and Team Night Train came through, winning Bronze.  Another mountain was finally climbed, this one far more personal than previous feats.

The 4-man USA-1 team remained intact since the 2010-’11 season.  What changed following the 2012 world championship were two things.  One was that Christopher Fogt eventually replaced Justin Olsen in the line-up.  The second was a new sled, also provided by the BoDyn project.  Naturally, the team immediately dubbed it “Night Train II”.  Whereas the previous sled was built to take advantage of the unparalleled speeds on the Whistler track for the 2010 Winter Games, this one had different aerodynamic qualities built to better-negotiate more complicated tracks, such as the one at Sochi.  Whereas the Whistler track remains the fastest sliding sports track on the planet (top 4-man speeds have been known to reach 95 mph), the Sochi track was one of the slowest.

The Sanki Sliding Center was the track for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  Its first world cup race was held following the 2013 worlds at St. Moritz to cap off the 2012-’13 season.  Like Lake Placid, it too was a “driver’s track,” but complicated in a very different way.  Teams were lucky to reach 80 mph.  Those “in the know” pointed out that you didn’t make any time at all on this track.  You just tried your best to minimize the time lost.  Holcy and the boys did not even place in the first 2-man and 4-man race at the Sanki Center.  They obviously had their work cut out for them come the 2014 Winter Games.

In other words, there was yet another mountain yet to climb, all the more incentive to keep grinding away as always.  This time, he and Steve Langton had a new weapon at their disposal.  BMW took over the design of the 2-man sleds, and unveiled a new prototype by 2013.  Some tests and tweaks throughout that year ensured that it and other 2-man models were ready for Team USA – both for men’s and women’s events – for the 2013-2014 Olympic season.

By the time the Winter Games at Sochi rolled around, Holcy and the boys were ready to go.  One achievement that eluded him and Team USA was medaling in the 2-man event.  The United States had not done so since 1952.  This time, Steve Holcomb rose to the occasion and won bronze in that event.  Amazingly, the two came back from 5th place starting the 3rd run and made up the deficit in the last two runs to medal.  In so doing, he and Steve Langton quenched another 62-year medal drought for USA bobsledding.

The 4-man event was agonizingly close between the top five finishers.  But Holcomb piloted Night Train II on the fourth run to maintain a .03-second lead over Russia-2, thus guaranteeing the team Bronze.  With that achievement, Holcomb double-medaled in the 2-man and 4-man events at the Winter Olympics for the first time since 1936.  As ESPN’s Lee Corso is so fond of saying, “That’s a ‘yo’!”

More amazingly, he achieved this playing through pain.  He strained a calf muscle during the second run of the 2-man, which slightly hobbled his push-runs at the top of the track, and possibly compromised the team’s start times on a track where that was more crucial than most.  Yet he pulled off the double-bronze anyhow.

Obviously, bobsledding was what he did well above all else, which is why he stuck with the sport after the rest of the 2013-’14 iteration of Team Night Train retired, and Justin Olsen would eventually go on to start piloting a sled of his own.  Still recovering from his lower-leg injury during the 2014-’15 season, and leading an all-rookie team of pushers, the team’s performance understandably suffered, and continued to do so the following season as Holcomb’s full strength gradually returned while the team struggled to find its inner rhythm.

But Holcomb’s leadership through persistent diligence started to pay off once more, as the team did find its inner rhythm just as the storied pilot returned to full strength.  The 2016-’17 World Cup season ended with Holcomb finishing third in both the 4-man standings and in the combined 2-man and 4-man standings.  Obviously, Team USA was making a comeback.  Clearly, Holcomb was expected to lead the U.S. men’s bobsled team to and through the 2018 Winter Olympics at PyeongChang.

“Holcomb is the reason why the USA team coaches do not keep switching around teams.  He saw the German and Swiss teams being left alone to find their own mechanics and thus their speed.  He brought that philosophy over to Team USA.”

-friend and former teammate Doug Sharp

But now, all of a sudden, not anymore.  In the wake of the shock, eulogies have poured in within Olympic circles throughout the United States.

“USA Bobsled and Skeleton is a family and right now we are trying to come to grips with the loss of our teammate, our brother and our friend,” U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele said.

“The entire Olympic family is shocked and saddened by the incredibly tragic loss today of Steven Holcomb,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. “Steve was a tremendous athlete and even better person, and his perseverance and achievements were an inspiration to us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Steve’s family and the entire bobsledding community.”

Teammate Nick Cunningham, the driver for USA-2 and who inherited the first Night Train sled for the 2014 Winter Games, reminded us of who and what we have lost:

“The only reason why the USA is in any conversation in the sport of bobsled is because of Steve Holcomb.  He was the face of our team. He was the face of our sport. We all emulated him. Every driver in the world watched him, because he was that good at what he did. It’s a huge loss, huge loss, not just for our team but for the entire bobsled community.”

During a recent celebration of his life, held in Lake Placid on May 11, Mike Preston, who has worked at the OTC in Lake Placid since 1985, summed it all up nicely:  “He won gold, and he had a heart of gold.”

No surviving friend or family member could ever disagree.  Yes, he made the occasional mistake, but we all do from time to time in our lives.  Moreover, they must never obfuscate the importance of the man, or how he touched so many lives so positively.  He was not only the greatest American bobsledder of all time, but he was an unabashed patriot as well; a humble, cheerful, ever-diligent teammate, and an example for all to follow.  In short, he was not only a great (nay, superb) American athlete, but more importantly, a great American.

General George Patton once admonished, “[I]t is foolish and wrong to mourn the dead.  Rather, we should thank God that such men lived.”

As shocked and saddened as we all are at this most sudden passing of a friend, exemplar Olympian, and fellow patriot, we must always be grateful to the Lord our God that he was here on Earth to apply his talents in such a unique way.  With his gold medals, we shared great joy in the honor he brought to our country.  As a person, we shall always remember the gold in his heart.  On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, my friend, and rest in peace.

Amicus noster nobis reliquit multam nimis cito mane et mortua est in vita.  Sed perpetua laus Deo sumus qui sciebant eum esse beati atque in perpetuum sui memoriam.

Teams that could beat Notre Dame November 22, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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From the latest edition of Sports Illustrated. The Latin phrase at the top translates to “The Miracle of Our Lady 2012”

In case some dear readers have been hanging out in a cave for an extended period of time, Notre Dame is now the no. 1 college football team in the nation for the first time in 19 years to the month.  Given the national following the Fighting Irish have, there has been more than a bit of hoopla over this development.  Without going into obscene details, I can see Regis Philbin and other ND-loving celebrities losing control of themselves right about now.  But just because the Irish are no. 1 by default, does not mean they are invincible?  Of course not.  Yes, they are undefeated; yes, they have beaten some decent teams.  To be fair, Notre Dame is formidable.  Brian Kelly has done an incredible job of bringing in a talented receiving corps for the offense while massively upgrading the team’s talent defensively.  Their front five and front seven are both sufficiently physical to compete with anybody.  But there are teams out there that would give ND fits, if not ruin their season outright if the two played each other.  I therefore submit this list of teams to a candid world:

Practically sure things:

LSU:  Without a doubt, LSU would give Notre Dame all it would want and then some.  Over the past decade, there is no team that has been known to show up in big games and win them like LSU.  Yes, they lost at home to Alabama this year.  Yes, they lost the national championship game to Alabama at the end of last season.  Yet ought these not to be a strong commentary on the Crimson Tide’s prowess rather then to the Bayou Bengals’ detriment?  The Tigers have won two national titles within a decade.  Aside from the BCS game this past season, they have won almost all of their bowl games*.  Stretch the scale of time back to 15 years, and every time the Irish have played the Tigers in a bowl game (the 1997 Independence Bowl, the 2006-’07 Sugar Bowl), LSU has won both games handily.  The odds, talent, and the mindset are all in LSU’s favor.  Notre Dame ought to pray that the two teams do not meet anytime soon.

*LSU’s only bowl losses were to a tough Texas team in the 2003 Cotton Bowl, and inexplicable losses in the Capital One Bowl to both Iowa (30-20 on Jan. 1, 2005), and Penn State (19-17 on Jan. 1, 2010).

Stanford:  Don’t laugh.  Yes, they already lost to Notre Dame this year, but by that same token, let us put things into perspective.  A), the game was in South Bend, B) the weather was horrible, C) what did the Cardinal in was two consecutive horrible play calls on the goal line in overtime.  Now imagine the two teams playing each other again, this time on a neutral field, and reasonable weather.  Stanford has the personnel to fight the Irish effectively on the line on both sides of the ball.  They sport a very physical front seven, and their offense is ground-and-pound.  This approach was two horribly-called plays shy of working under very adverse circumstances on the road.  Imagine how well it would work in, say, Glendale, Ariz., or Pasadena.

Texas A&M:  The Aggies have proven that they can move the ball on tough defenses.  Quarterback Johnny Manziel has gotten better and better as the season has progressed.  They moved the ball effectively on Alabama, after all.  Moreover, Coach Kevin Sumlin has proven to be an excellent motivator in getting his men ready for big games.  Some of their margins of victory are impressive.  For example, they beat a respected Mississippi State squad 38-13, and then turned around the following week and beat then-no. 1 Alabama.  What this tells me is that you can count on consistent play from A&M at this stage of the season.  That, plus quick defense and superior quarterback play add up to being too much for the Irish to handle.

Ohio State:  Yes, Brian Kelly has proven to be one of the best coaches in the college game.  But so has Urban Meyer, and his resume of winning big games with more teams, one could argue, trumps Kelly’s.  Never count out Meyer in big games.  Moreover, once he brings in more of his own style of players, they will execute his spread offense all the more effectively.  True, the Buckeyes were playing some teams too closely for comfort earlier in the year.  After all, they only scored 29 points on abysmal UAB, of all teams!  But lately the offense runs like a well-oiled machine.  During their last games, they have averaged scoring 49 points each.  Their lower scores during that span were 29 points (where Purdue’s defense actually showed up) and 21 points against Wisconsin’s traditionally stout ‘D.’  Notre Dame has not encountered anything like Ohio State’s offense throughout this memorable season of theirs.

Questionable teams:

Florida:  Yes, their defense is practically impregnable.  Good luck moving the ball on the Gators.  The problem is on the offensive side of the ball.  Jeff Driskel is a mediocre quarterback at best, and Notre Dame’s defense will not play dead simply because they are facing such a vaunted program.  The game would be very low-scoring, with the outcome depending on how well Driskell executes, which is a crap-shoot.

South Carolina:  On paper, this team should be a very formidable foe for the Irish.  A strong running game, one of the best QB’s in college football in Connor Shaw, and defense with potential NFL talent, anchored by Jadeveon Clowney.  The problem lies in consistency.  The Gamecocks blew out a tough Georgia team earlier in the year, only to embarrass themselves at Florida a few weeks later.  After that, they played an awful Tennessee much more closely than the game should have been, again, on paper (they won that game only 38-35).  The Ol’ Ball Coach triumphing over the hot-headed Irish Coach will depend on the team that gave Georgia its only loss of the year to show up.

Georgia:  The Bulldogs have an incredibly talented offense led by experienced, highly-rated quarterback Aaron Murray.  On paper, the offense would give Notre Dame’s talented defense all they could handle.  Defensively, Georgia sports a typical talented, ultra-quick SEC defense.  The problem, like that of South Carolina, is consistency.  Yes, they could theoretically take Notre Dame, but it all comes down to which team shows up against them:  the team that beat Florida handily on an ostensibly neutral field, or the team that lost badly earlier on to South Carolina?

Alabama:  Easily the least-questionable team within this category.  The only reason they are in said category as opposed to the above one is that Texas A&M exposed a chink or two in their impressive armor.  Their defense is talented, but young, and their offense is not the most imaginative of teams at their level.  But let us say that the two – Bama and ND – end up playing each other in the BCS national championship game.  Give Nick Saban a month to prepare – a luxury no team has had thus far, to be sure – and he is practically unstoppable.  Advantage, Crimson Tide.

If any dear readers think other teams merit being added to the list, I would be more than happy to entertain suggestions!  (P.S.: Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!)