With two Saturdays left in Notre Dame’s season, two highly unrealistic scenarios are close to playing out before our very eyes. First, the Irish might run the table, completing as improbable of a undefeated regular season as you can remember. Second, it might not matter, and a 12-0 Notre Dame will be held out of the national championship game.
If you were looking for a prop bet that would pay out like a super lotto ticket, you could’ve found plenty of takers back in August. That’s when Notre Dame was kept out of the preseason polls, if only because it was widely agreed that the Irish played the toughest schedule in the country, a slate that felt destined to come with four or five losses.
But a funny thing happened along the way. After months of offseason hypothesizing and turning coffee table debate into definitive, preseason rankings, eventual football games were played. And it turned out that the Irish were much better than people expected while their opponents maybe weren’t as tough. Sure, Michigan and Michigan State didn’t turn out to be top ten teams, and BYU slipped up some after a ten win season. But they definitely didn’t turn into Missouri State or North Texas, two pre-purchased victories for Kansas State. Winning ugly against BCS opponents like Purdue or Pitt isn’t going to win a fashion show, but it tells you more than scheduling Arkansas State or Tennessee Tech will, the pride of conferences Sun Belt and Ohio Valley respectively.
Yet this isn’t another column to bemoan the plight of the Fighting Irish. It’s not another wasted exercise in trying to find apples-to-apples comparisons in a college football world that will never resemble a fruit stand. Don’t get me wrong, those arguments can — and should — be made. But only after Notre Dame beats USC. Because until then, there’s really nothing to talk about.
In many ways, USC’s season is a microcosm of Notre Dame’s opponents. The Trojans started the year atop the national rankings. Armed with a golden boy quarterback, two elite wide receivers, a running back acquired via virtual free agency from Penn State, and a defense that returned eight starters (remember, that’s what matters in those summer months), it took a while for some of Southern Cal’s fatal flaws to be exposed, as they were in losses to Stanford, Arizona and Oregon.
But that’s not to say the Trojans aren’t dangerous. In many ways, having USC in the way of Irish immortality makes this team one of the most frightening of all. As Lane Kiffin learned this year, it’s quite different being the hunted rather than the hunter, a role the Trojans relished during their 10-2 2011 campaign. It’s a role they will easily adopt next Saturday, as Matt Barkley leads his teammates into the Coliseum one last time.
The Irish still need to get past Wake Forest, a team that also beat Boston College by two touchdowns. A loss to the Demon Deacons ends any championship discussions quickly, and also legitimizes any arguments being made that Notre Dame is a pretender. But if the Irish walk out of the Coliseum 12-0, they’ll have done everything asked of them, completing a schedule that may not have been Kilimanjaro, but certainly a tougher climb than the slates faced by the other title contenders.
Any championship determined by computers, pollsters and fellow coaches is bound to end up rankling a team or two, especially if more than two teams run the table. But you can hardly blame Brian Kelly for staying out of the debate, as he knows what stands between him and his shot at a national title.
A year after getting punked at home at Notre Dame Stadium, don’t expect Kelly and his staff to come up for air until they leave Los Angeles undefeated.
Then? Let the politicking begin.