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Pushing the chips into the middle

Aug 27, 2009, 2:14 PM EDT

Welcome to “Inside the Irish,” the new NBCSports.com blog that will bring you daily news, rumors, analysis, commentary, and just about everything you’d ever want to know about the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. As your fearless leader and the guy behind this bold new experiment, I thought it’d be as good a time as any to make an introduction and get started talking about one of the “highest leverage” seasons in recent Notre Dame history.

Much has been made about the past two seasons. Head coach Charlie Weis has seen a variety of labels put on him, and as his tenure in South Bend continues, those labels have gotten significantly less flattering. The 3-9 season of 2007 was one of the darkest in the storied history of Notre Dame football. Yet last season’s 7-6 campaign was the year that truly brought despair to the core of ND Nation.

The Irish saw a promising season begin to chip away in a bizarre loss at North Carolina. While the squad rallied to bury a dismal Washington, the rest of the regular season found Notre Dame failing in all of the games they played. The overtime loss to Pitt was a game that ND found a way to lose. The Boston College domination pulled the series between the two schools even, and the six consecutive BC wins pointed decisively to the opposing directions the two programs were trending. Even the chaotic finish of the Navy game couldn’t be categorized as a win, but simply a respite for a game that wouldn’t have created a new chapter in heart-stomping losses, it would’ve created an almanac. And the Syracuse loss… Rock bottom.

Notre Dame came into the Coliseum dead men walking. There wasn’t a shred of hope that day among Irish fans, as I witnessed first hand. In the days that followed the embarrassing defeat, many wondered if the fate of Weis had already been decided. New athletic director Jack Swarbrick had given Weis a (dreaded) vote of confidence just weeks before, but the humiliating loss brought radio silence from the administration. Recruits hung in the balance. A rebuilding job that Weis believed was nearly complete was close to being detonated again.

In the end, Swarbrick stuck with Charlie Weis as the man in charge of the Irish. The team, with nearly a month to heal, came out rejuvenated and showed the promise of a squad loaded with young talent, throttling an overmatched Hawaii team in what was essentially a home game. The positive vibe rolled into the recruiting season, as Weis and ace recruiter Brian Polian struck another victory with the successful recruitment of Manti Te’o.

Last season’s hopeful finishing uptick instantly reminded me of one of the quintessential lines of The Dark Knight:

“The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

Will last season’s terror and frustration be the darkness that Notre Dame pulls out of, or merely a sign of what’s to come? What made last season so unbearable wasn’t going 7-6, it was watching the variance in how the record was achieved. All of this leads me back to leverage.

While we can postulate and hypothesize all we want about the effects of the Hawaii Bowl win and a productive offseason, what remains to be seen is how Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish perform when the chips have been pushed to the middle of the table.  Last season, the results were decisive. When push came to shove, the Irish folded. While eight long months have passed since the Irish last played a game, you’ve got to wonder if the offseason brought the confidence needed to a team that has to learn how to win close games.

In nine days, the preseason static is tuned out. The talking heads will forget that Jimmy Clausen flew his wide receivers to California and that Manti Te’o gave Notre Dame its first big win against Pete Carroll since 2001. In nine days, the Irish will be punched in the mouth, and we’ll finally know what kind of jaw the team has. In the high stakes game of college football, nobody has more to prove than Notre Dame this season.

I, for one, can’t wait.

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