Irish are the real deal. Have great chance to make strong playoff case.

Let’s not underestimate what Notre Dame accomplished in demolishing USC 49-14 on Saturday.

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It not only put the Fighting Irish, who rose to No. 9 in the AP poll, squarely in the competition for a College Football Playoff berth. It showed that ND has the ingredients to match up with anyone in its path to the playoffs.

That’s still a long, tough road. The trip to No. 8 Miami now looms largest in an obstacle-filled schedule that can make the Irish pay any time they come up with a sub-par performance.

But it’s no longer pie-in-the-sky to talk about Pasadena or New Orleans. The Irish need to play consistent, good football to win out. They don’t need any miracles, though.

That’s a great credit to the rebuilt staff Brian Kelly put together after last year’s 4-8 disaster.

Here are the best things about Notre Dame, the things that will make it a tough out the rest of the way.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

--The Irish are sixth in the nation in rushing (317.9 yards a game). The ground game is led by Josh Adams, 138.1, who’s sixth in the nation in rushing, and is deserving of being on your Heisman radar.

What that means, in short, is that they are physical. And that’s something that can be counted on. That’s pretty much true on both sides of the ball.

--Thanks to aggressive defense, the Irish—who had three turnovers that led to 21 points vs. USC—are plus-10 in turnover margin (17 takeaways, seven turnovers). They’re tied for third in the nation behind South Florida (plus-13) and Penn State (plus-12). The other plus-10 teams are Alabama and Central Florida.

Everyone in that group is unbeaten, except, of course, for ND, which lost a nail-biter to unbeaten Georgia, which is also a serious playoff contender.

Turnovers are what you call a barometer stat.

The other thing I like is that Kelly has put together a team that can back up his, uh-hem, brashness.

That’s a product of these things: First, his new coaching staff is doing an outstanding job. Second, his talent base is excellent, and is being coached-up to play its best. And third, the memories of last year’s angst have thickened the hides of these Irish.

They’re hungry. They may not show it as much as their pugnacious coach, but they’ve got a big-time chip on their shoulder.

Remember when, after that tough 20-19 loss to Georgia, Kelly lit into a reporter who asked if this year would follow last year’s pattern of losing close?

Here’s what we got from Kelly after ND had made hash out of USC:

``I wrote on my card tonight in my locker room, and I said if we didn't win really big, I would be disappointed.’’

The media often over-praises humbleness, and tends to rip any signs of arrogance.

I’m not going to do that here. I’m going to say: Let’s applaud Kelly for being honest, for letting us in on his lofty appraisal of his team, and for giving us something interesting. It’s nice to hear some candor in an often athletically correct world.

This USC blowout was also another nice stride for quarterback Brandon Wimbush. In his first three games, he threw two touchdowns, with two interceptions. In his last three, he has six passing TDs, with no interceptions. His two passing TDs at the start of the USC game were really good throws, and he added two rushing scores.

Wimbush doesn’t have to be a throwing monster. He just has to do what he did against the Trojans: Pass for occasional big plays to keep defenses honest. If he does that while continuing to run effectively and stays out of mistakes, he’ll give the Irish what they need to compete against their remaining regular-season opponents.

The opponents are a pretty darned good group. The trips to No. 8 Miami and No. 20 Stanford stand out. But the home games against No. 14 N.C. State, Wake Forest and Navy become trickier as the pressure mounts against teams that will be determined to give ND their best shot.

I use the phrase ``regular-season opponents’’ because it’s too early to think about how ND might match up against potential playoff opponents such as Alabama or Penn State or Ohio State, or even Georgia in a rematch. Or any of the other playoff contenders.

But it’s not too early to think we might be pondering the Irish’s chances in a College Football Playoff at the end of this season.[/membership]