Bears

For Notre Dame, the formula equals a trip to the BCS Championship

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For Notre Dame, the formula equals a trip to the BCS Championship

LOS ANGELES -- Braxston Cave let out a primal scream, pointing to the legions of delirious Notre Dame fans crowding the front rows of the stands at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Carlo Calabrese raced up and down the wall, high-fiving anyone with a free hand and a Notre Dame jersey. Manti Te'o and Brian Kelly, the emotional leader and coach, embraced in the tunnel leading away from the field where Notre Dame beat USC 22-13, securing an undefeated regular season and berth in the BCS Championship Jan. 7 in Miami.

"We set out this season to build our program and get it back in to the national discussion when you're talking about championship programs," Kelly said after the game. "And we're in that discussion."

Notre Dame isn't just in the discussion. They're at the center of it, with the winner of next week's SEC Championship between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia awaiting in South Beach.

The Irish got to that point by doing what they've done all year on Saturday. A stout defense effort was punctuated by another miraculous goal-line stand, with Notre Dame keeping USC out of the end zone on four tries from inside the one-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Theo Riddick shed countless tackles and gained 146 yards with a touchdown on 20 physical carries. And Everett Golson didn't put up a flashy stat line, but didn't turn the ball over.

That's exactly the formula that got Notre Dame to where they are today, and that's a spot in the BCS Championship.

"It was just football at its best, you know," safety Zeke Motta beamed.

But that formula hasn't been perfected yet, despite a perfect record. Kyle Brindza had to kick six field goals -- he hit five -- as Notre Dame consistently left points on the board, allowing USC to stay within striking distance until the dying embers of the game.

"We definitely have to improve," Riddick said. "We're not there yet, we don't feel like it. We're going to go back next week, look at the tape, figure out what we can get better at and do that during that week. We have time. Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to. We have to get better at that being in the red zone. We're going to do that, and we're going to be okay."

The on-field formula still needs work, as plenty will be quick to point out when the Irish open as underdogs to either Alabama or Georgia. But big-picture, Notre Dame's formula for success is clear. It's also one few predicted would work in today's college football landscape.

"What's so exciting for us is to be in this year that we're No. 1 in the nation in graduation success rate, to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS and go to the championship game. No one's ever done that before," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "And that's the proof of concept for us. That's always been what the goal was and what we were about. To be able to pull it off, this year, another important game to go -- but to get to this point, proving you can do it the way we do it is incredibly galvanizing and rewarding for us."

Few expected Notre Dame to be here, certainly not as soon as 2012. Even Swarbrick admitted he thought 2013 was going to be the year Kelly and the Irish finally broke through. But despite a greenhorn quarterback, a pair of injuries to starters in the secondary and plenty of near-misses at home, make no mistake: Notre Dame is back.

"I was just speechless, man," Riddick said of his thoughts when the clock hit zero. "I was just in shock. It was like a dream come true."

In a historical context, Notre Dame's win was probably shocking. The Irish haven't won a game this big in nearly a quarter of a century. But nothing went terribly wrong, like things did in 1993. There were no crippling turnovers, the likes of which stamped out any hopes of Notre Dame taking a step forward in 2011. This is 2012, and Notre Dame won in Notre Dame fashion. That's hardly surprising.

"This was another clear indication of how we got to 12-0," Kelly said. "Our guys have incredible resolve, regardless of the circumstances, of coming up and finding ways to win. That's all we talk about. We don't talk about style points, anything else, just find ways to win. And these guys continue to do that."

Bears receive Sports Illustrated's top offseason grade in NFC North

Bears receive Sports Illustrated's top offseason grade in NFC North

The Chicago Bears are less than one month from the start of training camp, but the praise for general manager Ryan Pace's offseason continues to pour in.

Pace and the Bears received an A for their offseason -- the best grade in the NFC North -- from Sports Illustrated. A big part of the perfect score was the overhaul at wide receiver.

Chicago had one of the weakest receiving groups in the NFL last season—the team ranked dead last in passing yards per game (175.7)—so that position was clearly an area of focus this offseason for general manager Ryan Pace. The additions of Allen Robinson from Jacksonville, Taylor Gabriel from Atlanta and Anthony Miller via the draft will boost a stagnant group, assuming Robinson returns fully healthy from last September’s ACL tear. If 2015 first-round pick Kevin White can stay healthy for a full season for the first time in his ill-fated career, it’s an added bonus.

Much is expected from the revamped group of pass-catchers even though none of them have an overwhelming history of production. Robinson had a dominant season in 2015 (1,400 yards, 14 touchdowns), but his last two seasons involved mediocre production in 2016 and a torn ACL in Week 1 last year. Gabriel's never topped more than 621 yards in a season and tight end Trey Burton has been a backup his whole career. Miller has yet to play a snap in the NFL and White, now entering his fourth season, is still looking for his first touchdown catch.

Mitch Trubisky has a lot of work to do once training camp kicks off. Not only must he master coach Matt Nagy's offense, but he must do so while building chemistry with all of his new receivers. Growing pains will happen, but the upside and expectations for the Bears in 2018 are higher than they've been in many years, and it's all because of a great offseason had by the front office.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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USA TODAY

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

"I woudn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile. 

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention.