Notre Dame has already outplayed its projected win total from such all-knowing entities as the Las Vegas Sports Books (8 wins) and this website (9). The surprising performance to date elicits the need for change in expectations: 13-0 is no longer an impossible dream.
To get there, however, Notre Dame might need a few of its key competitors to elevate their games down the stretch. The poster-boy for projected late-season improvement, redshirt-freshman wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, is out of the picture -- at least for the remainder of the regular season courtesy a broken collarbone suffered in Chestnut Hill last Saturday.
Daniels' classmate and friend Everett Golson is the most notable player in need of continued improvement, as well as the most likely to improve on the road to 13-0, but he's not alone.
Cornerback Bennett JacksonThe Irish haven't and won't play much man-to-man in the defensive secondary, but at some point soon (read: Thanksgiving Saturday) Jackson is going to be asked to make a play -- or 20.
USC's perimeter combination of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods will catch between 18-25 passes vs. Notre Dame in the Coliseum. The pair are the nation's most electric tandem after the catch but Jackson has been outstanding throughout 2012 as an open-field tackler and force support player vs. the oft-used "bubble screen" pass (a quick sideline throw to a wide receiver with one blocker in front of him).
Jackson, as well as fellow cornerback Keivarae Russell, will combine for at least 15 tackles in their matchup vs. the Trojans. The former is playing his best football over the last four games and had the best game of his 10-game starting career vs. Boston College last week.
He'll add to his tackle total over the next 2-3 contests -- putting a few notches in the pass defensed (8 to date) and interceptions (4) columns will be crucial.
Linebacker/Defensive End Ishaq WilliamsMike Elston's defensive line has four difference makers in the unit: Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Louis Nix. It likewise enjoys relief from three intermittently productive, always-solid substitutes: Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann, and Kona Schwenke.
That leaves the X-Factor.
Sophomore Ishaq Williams recorded a career-high three tackles last week at Boston College. His two previous outings included a tackle-for-loss in each; the first time he consecutively recorded stops behind the line of scrimmage in his Irish career. He added a crucial quarterback hurry in overtime vs. Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
He's a backup Cat linebacker in the team's 3-4 (behind Shembo); a starting nickel defender as both a coverage linebacker and 4-3 defensive end in the team's preferred "Big Nickel" package that puts Williams on the field with three starting linebackers and four defensive linemen, and for the first time in his Irish career, seems to have found a regular niche as a result.
Williams will play between 17-25 snaps as part of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 11-player rotation up front (LBs and DLs). If he continues his recent ascent, more Irish fans will notice his presence.
Center Braxston CaveSnaps to the right when the shotgun quarterback is set to sprint to the left. Snaps a touch high, throwing off the triggerman's timing (Everett Golson or Tommy Rees have both been forced to make tough catches to begin a play.) Cadence issues between center and starter Everett Golson.
Each has plagued the generally solid Cave this fall. Each makes life more difficult for an offense with precious margin for error.
Cave has likely graded as the team's No. 3 offensive lineman this fall -- a ranking expected by most observers. But his efforts have been up (the second half vs. Pittsburgh) and down (the first half). He's played well (vs. Miami, BYU, and Oklahoma), and experienced his share of struggles (Purdue and Stanford).
The key for Cave over the final three weeks is to match the level of consistency by the player to his left, senior guard Chris Watt. Neither is in the class of left tackle Zack Martin on a down-to-down basis, but both have had moments of dominance this fall, especially vs. the run.
If Cave's best three games in an Irish uniform are his final threesome, Notre Dame won't lose and the offense will score more than 21 points in each -- a W-L indicator to date in the Kelly era. (19-4 scoring 21 or more; 7-6 when scoring less.)
Running Back Cierre WoodCommon belief would place sophomore speedster George Atkinson in this spot, but Wood is the most likely Notre Dame football player to take his game to the next level as the season hits the home stretch.
In 2011, Wood put up a rushing total previously bested by the following former Irish runners: Vagas Ferguson, Allen Pinkett, Reggie Brooks, Autry Denson, Julius Jones, and Darius Walker.
Six rushers in program history exceeded his 1,100-yard, 9-touchdown junior season. But Wood has enjoyed only intermittent production since, rushing for more than 100 yards vs. Miami and BYU this season; topping 70 vs. both Oklahoma (7 carries) and Pittsburgh (13), while also experiencing near no-show outings vs. Michigan and most recently, Boston College.
Wood is the most explosive pure running back on the team. He's likely the third best pro prospect on the offense behind Tyler Eifert and Zack Martin. But throughout 2012, his head coach has trusted the north-south rugged style of classmate Theo Riddick to do the heavy lifting.
Riddick is a far better receiver and slightly better pass protector than Wood. He's a better inside runner as well. But Wood is special in space. Wood is a career 5-plus yards per carry back.
And Wood will be the difference vs USC in two weeks and the BCS bowl outcome thereafter -- one way or the other.