COMMENTARY | While an 8-4 record doesn't get the trustees fired up or inspire fans to buy millions of dollars of additional apparel, it's really just about what Notre Dame fans expected if they're being honest.
Everett Golson's absence and injuries on the defensive side, particularly to Louis Nix, tempered expectations throughout the season.
Notre Dame had become all too familiar with lowered expectations when Brian Kelly came to town. The Fighting Irish were 8-7 in Kelly's first 15 games, including back-to-back losses to Tulsa and Navy in 2010 and an 0-2 start to the 2011 season. One of said losses in 2011 was the opener with the University of South Florida, which I will always question due to the forces of nature coming to bear on the Irish. The heavens opened and intense lightning forced the evacuation of Notre Dame Stadium and delayed the game for more than an hour.
Now, I'm not saying the fact that one of Notre Dame's loyal sons was holding his wedding and reception in concurrence with the game caused it, but on the 20-mile drive from the church to the reception hall, the temperature dropped from 95 to 65, and I think I saw Dorothy's house fly by. Needless to say, more than a little thunder was shaken down, along with a few inches of rain.
But just as the storm passed, so too has the mediocrity that dogged the Irish for much of the past two decades. And after consecutive losses to open 2011, Notre Dame has proceeded to go 28-8 in the 36 games since. While that might not seem too outstanding in a vacuum, consider that only 2 of those losses (USC in '11, Pitt in '13) were to unranked opponents and only 2 (USC in '11, Oklahoma in '13) occurred at home.
This is even more impressive when you consider that each of Brian Kelly's predecessors drove the program in the opposite direction. Ty Willingham began his tenure with a 10-3 season before dropping to 5-7 and then 6-6. Charlie Weis opened his time under the Golden Dome with 9-3 and 10-3 campaigns, but then went 3-9, 6-6, and 6-6 before being bought out.
Willingham and Weis were little more than charlatans, failed alchemists who succeeded only in turning the Golden Dome into lead. Both men pledged to restore former glory and both appeared to have turned the program around for a bit. But when it came time for the prestige, it was a case of now you see me, now you … still see me. In short, they were who Denny Green thought they were.
But now, under Kelly, the Irish have built a strong foundation based on the science of speed and strength. They've recruited great athletes who are also good young men, and they've helped those men grow as football players.
When you get right down to it, a BCS game this season is not so different from those illusions of the past. Notre Dame needs to win on its own terms, to fight through the ranks. Getting to the national title game was great, but the hollow feeling that lodged itself in the pits of Irish fans' stomachs shortly after the opening kick was not.
The legions of Notre Dame's detractors have long decried past major bowl berths for the Irish, and have attacked their choice of opponents since long before my article about scheduling for success. Of course, those same people likely claim cowardice when ND faces a more winnable bowl matchup. Now, I'm not advocating that the team pander to the opinions of "haters," but they do kind of have a point, to an extent.
I've long railed against the assertion that Notre Dame football ever became irrelevant. The mere fact that people are writing and talking about them on a national stage is ironclad proof that the Irish are relevant. But its cachet and nationwide fanbase make Notre Dame a sought-after participant in bowl games that might otherwise be occupied by better teams with less juice.
While those words might strike the tin ears of jaded fans like a tack hammer, there's no denying the fact that the Irish have found themselves over-matched in more bowl games than I care to list here. But, hammer in hand, I'm going to take a look at the results anyway.
Notre Dame is 2-11 in its last 13 bowl appearances, including 0-6 in the major bowls that were or are a part of the BCS structure. The Irish have not beaten a ranked opponent in the postseason since back-to-back Cotton Bowl triumphs over #3 and #6 Texas A&M in 1993 and '94, respectively.
It should be noted that among those 11 losses, 6 came at the hands of an opponent with a single-digit ranking. Only one of the defeats (Oregon State, 2004 Insight Bowl) was to an unranked foe. But you have to crawl before you can walk, and coach Kelly and AD Jack Swarbrick need to apply their regular-season blueprint to the bowl process.
As exciting as it is to plan a trip to Glendale (Fiesta), Miami (Orange), New Orleans (Sugar), or Pasadena (Rose and BCS national championship), it's more important to reestablish a winning tradition. And this year that means a matchup with the Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Rather than face great odds in a BCS game, the Irish have a matchup in which the odds are small(er). Old Notre Dame didn't win over all this year, but it has an opportunity to add another brick to the foundation that coach Kelly has built.
Evan Altman is a freelance sportswriter with a vast collection of useless trivia and pop culture references. He grew up in Northwest Indiana watching the Irish on WNDU-TV and reading about them in the South Bend Tribune.
Nothing better to do? You can follow Evan on Twitter: @DEvanAltman.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Brian Kelly