Te'o and his Irish teammates will exit the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday night dealing with two potential realities:
1.) As potential champions -- one of two teams to be celebrated for the ensuing six weeks and up to the January 7 title game. College football's most storied program in a national limelight more intense than at any point in its championship past. Or…
2.) The recipients of a proverbial stomach punch, one from which no team can adequately recover.
There is no middle ground.
A loss means the Irish are still one of the nation's 5 to 10 best teams. They'll qualify as BCS bowl participants, a finish few forecasted and an ending no fan could view as anything but an unmitigated success.
But the alternative now that Notre Dame has ascended to No. 1 is staggering. Will the program carry the mantle for but a week as it did for its last nomination in 1993? Or capitalize on the honor for the next six-weeks plus in preparation for a title game to decide the country's best of the best between the lines?
ImmortalityTony Rice isn't an Irish legend because he threw two touchdown passes for a one-loss team that finished second in 1989. He attained that status and remains revered because he was the heart and soul of the 1988 national champions. Late-bloomer Frank Stams isn't considered a one-season all-time Irish great because he sacked Steve Walsh, Rodney Peete, and Major Harris multiple time apiece. He's rather part of every long-time fan's recollections because he did so in a championship season: always at his best when it mattered most.
Bronze statues memorialize champions. Contract extensions and "atta boys" are the trappings of BCS Bowl qualifying coaches. Those are the realities the program's coaches and players face entering and exiting Saturday night
Fortunate for Irish fans, both entities have been successful in ignoring outside realities to date. That wasn't the case last year when these same Trojans rolled into South Bend for the season's most hyped matchup.
"That game in particular was certainly one where it required all of our players to really examine how they're going to be consistent winners," said head coach Brian Kelly. "I think they have obviously done an incredible job since that game. I don't know how many games we've lost since then (2), but it's not many.
"It was a great learning experience for everybody, including myself.
Kelly declined specifics, but offered that program-wide growth was the end result.
"There were a number of different factors. I would leave it in saying that Manti, Brian Kelly, Bob Diaco, you know, everybody on this football team learned a lot about that game."
Pre-game hype and post-game consequence remain out of their collective hands. Rather, 60 minutes of football played to the standard set by Kelly's 2012 Irish will be the determining factor.
Absorb this Irish fans: For the first time in more than a decade, and for the first time since the early 90s as it pertains to a standout Irish team, the following statement is fact:
If Notre Dame plays its best football game, USC will not beat them.
Considering the Trojans have won 9 out of 10, seven in decisive fashion, its understandable for Irish fans to be wary of that truth.
"It's not a great rivalry right now; we haven't won enough games," said Kelly Tuesday. "They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry…we need to win some more football games against a great opponent in USC.
"We want to make this a rivalry. We're going to have to play great football against a really good football team."
I trust they will.