College Football: The Rise of Notre Dame matters
As an outsider, college football appears at first impenetrable. With 120 programs, 12 conferences and with 25 teams being ranked as the top teams it’s intimidating by pure force of numbers.
Behind this volume there are a number of schools that stand out and demand attention based upon their historical success and cultural importance.
These historical great names include Oklahoma, Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, USC, Texas, Florida, Nebraska and most importantly, Notre Dame.
Famed in films like Rudy and Knute Rockne: All American, Notre Dame has a historical cachet like no other program in college football. With names like Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, Paul Hornung, Raghib Ismail, Tim Brown and The Four Horseman the Fighting Irish have a record 48 members of the Collegiate Football Hall of Fame, eight national championships, seven Heisman trophy winners and 12 undefeated seasons. Notre Dame have the proudest history of any program in college football.
This historical dominance failed to continue into the 21st century with the college suffering a championship drought since 1988 and a dreadful run in bowls between 1992 and 2008. Notre Dame have been irrelevant as a national championship contender since 1992 and although they made major bowls after the 2000 and 2006 seasons they were thoroughly outclassed by superior teams.
However this 20 year run of mediocrity appears to be over with the Irish currently undefeated and ranked #6 and with a legitimate path to return to not only a major bowl game, but a chance to make the national championship.
Notre Dame was the first American sporting team to have a national reach. Their sprawling radio network gave them an audience across the US before the professional game mattered. Their base of support is so significant that every single Notre Dame game is broadcast nationwide on network television and has been for over 40 years with the university possessing the only exclusive broadcast contract in the NCAA.
In addition to their unique media advantages, and despite their standing as an independent from conference affiliation up until weeks ago, the Irish possessed as special clause in the BCS that granted them automatic entry to a BCS bowl provided they are ranked at #8 or higher. These unique advantages and media profile are signs of how important Notre Dame was in college football.
A Catholic university, Notre Dame was a magnet for support from the Irish-American community and drew fans from across the country. Although situated in South Bend, Indiana, Notre Dame had hotbeds of support in major cities across the US, particularly on the East Coast in major centres of Irish immigrants such as Philadelphia, Boston and New York as well as in Mid-Western cities such as Chicago and Indianapolis.
Notre Dame was not just a team, it was a cultural emblem. In a nation in which professional teams are franchised and college programs represent small regions, Notre Dame was the only program to identify with a cultural group with only the Mormon BYU coming close to having the same relationship with its fans.
After the failed coaching tenures of Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weiss saw the Irish look like a pro team but not play like one, coach Brian Kelly is employing the Alabama model for success.
After years of playing defence like a sieve, Notre Dame has one of the nastiest defences in all of college football. Manti Te’o is the best middle linebacker seen in the college level since Rolando McClain led Alabama to the 2009 national championship. Alongside Alabama and South Carolina, Notre Dame have one of the statistically best defences allowing the second fewest points (7.8 a game) by only allowing three total touchdowns over the season.
The statistics are important but more impressive are the wins that Notre Dame have had this year. They have so far defeated two ranked opponents without letting them score touchdowns. The most impressive of these being their smothering performance at Michigan State. The Irish have one of the most difficult schedules in all of college football with games against five ranked opponents in addition to facing BYU who has been ranked at points.
At the beginning of the season, the prospect of the Irish going undefeated seemed nigh on impossible with two opponents, USC and Oklahoma, ranked in the top five preseason. With these two teams crashing out and exposed as possessing serious flaws Notre Dame will enter these tilts with confidence that these are winnable games.
The concept of relevance when applied to Notre Dame and the question of its return is different to the majority of college programs. Being in the rankings and winning the Gator Bowl is great for a team such as Texas Tech that lacks the storied history of Notre Dame. But Notre Dame and its fans want the kind of relevance that Alabama has carved out for itself. After 17 years between national championships and only one conference championship in the meantime, Alabama has won two national championships in the past three seasons thanks to the excellence of coach Nick Saban.
Alabama recruit as well as any school and are the standard that college football teams are set against. Notre Dame can be said to have returned when they are discussed as a possible national champion contender and when they are discussed based upon their performance, and not because of their name. If they are threatening the top five most years they can be said to be back.
The key for success in college football is always in recruiting and Notre Dame’s recruiting is getting better with the school consistently hauling in elite classes. But their performance on the field has not lived up to their potential.
Since taking the helm Brian Kelly has stressed a defence-first attitude the Irish have been able to bully teams and fulfil their promise, if they can cut down their mistakes on offence they will be able to fully implement the Alabama model of relentless defence and minimal mistakes. The focus on defence is a welcome change from the Charlie Weiss era that saw Weiss disregard defence and construct pro-style offences that did more to make quarterbacks like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen improve their draft prospects than win games. Despite teams like West Virginia having absurdly high offensive outputs, success is still predicated by the control of the line of scrimmage and with Te’o leading a defence that disrupts every quarterback and running game they face, Notre Dame can trouble the best teams in college football.
With USC suffering due to their inconsistent offensive line, Oklahoma suffering from sloppy offence and Stanford having little offence outside their running game, Notre Dame will trouble every team they face.
Kelly is clearly the right coach for the Irish and has them on a path to return to the elite level. Although they will never reach their halcyon days of the 1920s-1980s where they defined college football they can be a consistently strong team.
Winning the national championship this year seems very unlikely given the strength of teams ahead of them in the rankings but seeing them in and winning a BCS bowl this year as well as the prospect of Notre Dame being in contention for years to come is promising.
Notre Dame was the Manchester United or New York Yankees of college football with the cultural importance of Glasgow Celtic. They were the most important program in college football and if they can rise back to the top it will be the most significant upheaval in college football since Nick Saban became Alabama’s head coach.
Take notice of this team because it could be a sign of important things to come.