Notre Dame may be 12-0 and ranked No. 1, but make no mistake: they're major underdogs to Alabama in next month's BCS Championship.
While some players are drawing motivation from that status -- an "us vs. the world" mentality continues to resonate -- others see the BCS Championship as a chance to see where they stand against a team regarded as the best in the country.
"A team from the SEC, a team like Alabama, coached by Nick Saban, those guys will make you better all around," defensive tackle Louis Nix said. "Im just happy we get a chance to play these guys in the National Championship."
His defensive coordinator agreed.
"The fact of the matter is Alabama is king of the hill," Bob Diaco said. "Have you ever played King of the Hill? Did you walk up the hill and knock the guy off? Thats what weve gotta do. Theyre King of the Hill. They set the precedent for defensive football in the country."
Notre Dame's front seven might have the toughest challenge on Jan. 7, going up against an Alabama offensive line loaded with pro prospects. Nix may have the most important matchup, squaring off against All-American center Barrett Jones.
"That gives me an opportunity to better myself and see where I fit at in the country with other nose tackles that went up against him," Nix said.
While Notre Dame's focus is just on this one game, there's plenty the Irish can learn -- win or lose -- from Alabama, in terms of consistency within a program. The Tide will play in their third title game in four years next month, a fact which isn't lost on coach Brian Kelly.
"Alabama has been the benchmark for college football," Kelly explained. "... Were aware of the challenge in front of us. We welcome it. It's one that were putting ourselves in a position to go find out where we need to go from here."
Lauri Markkanen’s celebration for his 21st birthday coincided with another major honor, being selected to the All-Rookie First team.
Markkanen received 76 of 100 possible first-team votes to join Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma on the first team. Mitchell and Simmons were unanimous selections and Tatum was one vote short of joining Mitchell and Simmons.
Markkanen, acquired on draft night in the package of players for Jimmy Butler, showed he was far more advanced than many expected. His 15.2 points per game ranked third among rookies and his 7.5 rebounds were first.
Markkanen was a constant in a topsy-turvy season for the Bulls, scoring 30-plus twice and hitting the 25-point plateau another three times. As a perfect fit in Fred Hoiberg’s offensive system, Markkanen had eight games where he hit four triples or more, including a game in New York where he drilled eight 3-pointers against the Knicks.
Only 15 rookies have hit more than 140 triples in NBA history, with Markkanen accomplishing the feat in 68 games—he was joined by Mitchell and Kuzma from this year’s star-studded class.
As the season progressed and Markkanen took hold of the power forward position, the Bulls began maneuvering personnel around him, trading disgruntled forward Nikola Mirotic and making a concerted effort to put Bobby Portis at center to pair Portis with Markkanen as a spread-shooting duo.
As the most impressive rookie the Bulls have employed since Derrick Rose, he’s also the first rookie since Taj Gibson in 2010 to make All-Rookie First Team.
The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.
The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.
The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).
Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.
The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.
Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.
Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.