Notre Dame has a football team, and it's going to keep contending

Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

It's been a rough few weeks for Notre Dame fans, on the field and off. But look to the gridiron, where the Irish football program is on the rise. For real this time.

For college football fans who dislike Notre Dame, this has been a banner month. After a season of enduring repeated, vexing instances of the Luck of the Irish, along with the attendant media spin that plucky Microsoft had overcome the odds with heavenly assistance, January was the big payback.

First, the Irish got humiliated on the biggest possible stage, losing the national title game to Alabama in comprehensive fashion. Second, Brian Kelly seriously flirted with taking the Philadelphia Eagles job, possibly costing Notre Dame one of their best recruits. (I say possibly because Alex Anzalone's recruitment has been marked by flights of fancy throughout. It's possible that he was going to commit to Florida all along and the Kelly-to-Philly stories provided the fig leaf.) Third, and perhaps most entertainingly for people who tune into NBC on fall Saturdays just in the hopes that Notre Dame will lose, it turns out the back story that propelled Manti Te'o to win a passel of major awards was a fiction. Whether Te'o was part of the fraud or was a victim/rube, the story reinforced one of the dominant themes of anti-Notre Dame sentiment, which is that much of the program's legend is based on hucksterism and falsehoods.

Coming back to the first of the three events in Notre Dame's month of being Job, a college football fan with a memory might very well conclude that the Irish have experienced just one more false dawn. The media proclaimed a return to glory for college football's second-winningest program on at least three occasions in the Aughts. In each instance - 2000, 2002, and 2005-06 - Notre Dame pieced together a season spiced with fortunate wins before getting exposed on New Year's Day. Oregon State 41, Notre Dame 9. N.C. State 28, Notre Dame 6. Ohio State 34, Notre Dame 20. LSU 41, Notre Dame 14. It would stand to reason for a fan who watched those four bowl games to fit Alabama's destruction of Notre Dame in Miami into the pattern and conclude that the Irish are headed for a 2001 (5-6), a 2003 (5-7), or a 2007 (3-9) in the very near future.

But channeling my own 30 for 30 narrator, what if I told you that this is more of a false dawn for Notre Dame haters than it is for writers of fan fiction? That this Irish program is built on a far stronger foundation than the previous pretenders? There are several reasons for this conclusion:

For more on Irish football, visit Notre Dame blog One Foot Down.

1. Notre Dame was not as lucky as they were made out to be this year. The narrative leading up to and then after the national title game was that the Irish were overrated because they had a series of close calls during the regular season, specifically the games against Purdue, Pitt, and BYU. However, they also spiced in quality wins over Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, and Oklahoma. By the end of the campaign, the Irish ranked fifth according to the Sagarin Predictor. (That ranking includes the loss to Alabama.)

Thus, an objective source that doesn't care about the Gipper and doesn't worry about selling to a large fan base concludes that the Irish were indeed elite in 2012. Contrast that ranking to 2000, when Notre Dame finished 13th, 2002 when they finished 24th, 2005 when they finished 6th, and 2006, when they finished 34th. In three of the four prior false dawn seasons, there was good evidence that Notre Dame was badly overrated. That evidence does not exist this year.

Or perhaps you want to look at yardage instead of a points-based measure like the Sagarin Predictor. One good way to measure a team is its yards per play margin, i.e. the difference between offensive yards per play and defensive yards per play. Let's see how 2012 Notre Dame stacks up against the desert mirage teams:

Year Offensive YPP Defensive YPP YPP Margin
2000 5.15 5.20 -0.05
2002 4.69 4.38 0.31
2005 6.06 5.86 0.20
2006 5.67 5.48 0.19
2012 5.99 4.78 1.21

2. Notre Dame has an actual coach with a resume. For a program with as much pull as any, Notre Dame has had an odd collection of coaches since Lou Holtz.

Bob Davie had never been a head coach before taking the job in charge in South Bend. This isn't always a formula for disaster (see: Richt, Mark; Stoops, Bob), but Notre Dame's money and prestige ought to mean it does not have to take a risk on such an unproven commodity. Davie was replaced by Ty Willingham, whose chief credential was that he got Stanford to the Rose Bowl in a season in which the Pac-10 was bad and the Cardinal managed to lose at home against 3-7 San Jose State. Next came Charlie Weis, another coach who had not been a head man before and whose resume was highlighted by producing mostly middling offenses with Tom F'in Brady as his quarterback.

Brian Kelly brings something to the table that Davie, Willingham, and Weis did not: a history of significant success in college. Kelly won at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati. He's from the Midwest and knows how to recruit the region. Notre Dame likes to fancy itself as a uniquely national program, but once they made a decision to hire from their home region, just as they did with Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian, they finally hit a home run.

3. Getting blown out by an SEC opponent in a title game is par for the course. The SEC's dominance of college football since 2006 is reminiscent of the NFL from 1984 to 1996, when the NFC won 13 straight Super Bowls. At a certain point, after sitting through a bunch of 46-10, 39-20, and 55-10 blowouts, football fans just expected the NFC champion to hammer whatever emerged from the AFC, and they were usually right. The combination of the two-week layoff before the game, the pressure on the underdog of getting embarrassed in front of a mammoth audience, and the superior coaching of the NFC teams led to an amplifying effect. The NFC champions were better than their AFC counterparts, but the lopsided final scores overstated the disparities between the teams. The '92 Cowboys were not five touchdowns better than the '92 Bills; the '87 Broncos were not 32 points worse than the '87 Redskins. Because of the circumstances of the Super Bowl, things escalated quickly.

A similar phenomenon seems to occur in college football title games. Teams have weeks to get stale. Coaching staffs have a vast quantity of hours to pick out the flaws in the opposition. Star players eat themselves out of shape on the award circuit. The pressure of playing in the biggest game of the season can have differing effects. As a result, you have games where the spread between the teams is fairly close, but the final score is 41-14 or 21-0. In fact, Alabama-LSU 2011 is a perfect example of this phenomenon. In the regular season, they played a tight game that went to overtime. Give Nick Saban a month to prepare and LSU a month to self-destruct and voila, you have a completely different, far less competitive game in January.

The point here for Notre Dame is simple: they were not nearly as bad as they looked in Miami. There's no shame in getting blown out by a fully focused, immaculately prepared Crimson Tide team.

4. Notre Dame is recruiting like a top SEC team. On the surface, it's possible to say "Notre Dame always recruits well, so why should I care that they are pulling in a lot of talent? That's never been their problem." However, there are a pair of reasons as to why this time is different.

First, the current Notre Dame class is ranked No. 2 by Rivals and has an average star rating of 3.91. Only one Notre Dame class in the 12-year period covered by the Rivals database is in that rarefied air: the 2008 class. The Alabama classes that produced the steamroller that flattened in the Irish in Miami had average star ratings of 3.77, 3.91, 3.62, 3.81, and 3.72. In other words, Notre Dame's current class is on par with Nick Saban's recruiting.

Additionally, the composition of Brian Kelly's classes is important. As Andy Staples has explained, a major reason for the SEC's dominance in recent years has been their teams' homegrown defensive linemen. Although they didn't look like it in the title game, the 2012 Notre Dame team was different than previous Irish team because they looked like an SEC team. They were led by an outstanding defensive line that shut down opposing running games, produced pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing, and let the offense get away with a more conservative approach. Notre Dame's defensive line was led by Stephon Tuitt, a five-star recruit from Georgia, Kapron Lewis-Moore, a (Weis-era) four-star recruit from Texas, Prince Shembo (on passing downs), a four-star recruit from North Carolina, and Louis Nix, a four-star recruit from Florida. Kelly has figured out the importance of having great athletes on the defensive line, he knows where to find those athletes, and he and his staff have the skill to land them.

SEC fans might view the national title game as confirmation that Notre Dame was a big fraud, but the product that Brian Kelly is producing will likely end up very familiar to fans in the region.

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