Something strange happened last year in college football. A return, a reminder, a recollection of what the sport used to be. The top 10 was littered with teams that gave a hint of yesteryear. Alabama, Penn State, Notre Dame… Teams that had fallen on hard times but, last season, returned to their lofty perches atop the college football world. For a person who loves college football (have anybody in mind?) last season was a reassuring reminder that those old tales and old trophies still mean something and we aren't watching a game of individual seasons. Rather, we are watching a game that flows from one year to the next that has stayed stern and unbroken since 1869.
Of all the teams in college football, none stands more upon tradition than Notre Dame. A team that has won more national titles than any other team in college football history; a team that was built by the biggest name in coaching history anywhere (I'm talking about Knute Rockne, by the way); a team that was representing not just a region, but an entire religion. Or at least the largest denomination of an entire religion. All this from a miniscule private school in the-middle-of-nowhere Indiana. Indiana, for the love of God (quite literally -- they are a Catholic school after all).
Interesting fact: The team that has been voted #1 most often in the preseason is Oklahoma, who has been preseason #1 nine times. Second place is Ohio State with 7 times counting this year. Nebraska is third with 6. Yet Notre Dame has the most national titles of any team -- 11 according to the RSFC homepage, the toughest (and the best) list of national titles that I know of. For a team that is supposed to be the top dog, they spend a lot of time coming from behind. They are a team that is, in some respects, an underdog. Not so much for being actually inferior (they won 11 titles, for crying out loud) to other teams as much as being considered inferior and feeding off of that lack of respect to beat Colorado in the Orange Bowl despite the fact that Eric Bienemy should have scored at least 3 touchdowns in the first half.
Mind you, my argument is thin -- the one about Notre Dame generally and not the one about Colorado -- and I have nothing to prove this, but it is a way of thinking about Notre Dame differently. Think of them as I might think of them -- a team whose strength is, in fact, their perceived weakness -- and you can begin to understand why I drink so much -- it makes the brain stop trying so hard.
There was an email debate I was a part of, thanks to my friend Dave Fong, arguing the current state of Notre Dame football. And when I say debate, I mean a series of insane rants that involved highly knowledgeable college football fans doing the electronic equivalent of yelling, "I know you are, but what am I?" at each other.
The issue posed by one David Fong was the question of where Notre Dame football is going. My argument was that Notre Dame football is far from dead. But it might want to get that cough checked out. 17 complete seasons without a national title -- Notre Dame's longest drought ever. An NCAA record-tying 8 straight bowl losses. They have fallen behind Michigan in all-time winning percentage. A few years ago, Notre Dame fans were more than happy to sell their tickets to visiting Nebraska fans until the Huskers essentially had a home game in South Bend. Honestly, for all the talk of how Notre Dame is so big that it can get its own TV contract, Notre Dame football has been sliding downhill ever since they became an NBC fixture, winning only 66% of their games since 1991. Do you notice how this plays into my idea of Notre Dame as a sort of underdog?
Of course, it doesn't help that Notre Dame has not been so kind to its traditions either. They used to play all their games in the day so that, according to the lore, God can see his team play. They expanded their stadium by raising the stands, and now the players on the field can't see I Once Caught A Fish This Big Jesus. You know, when you pride yourself on being God's team, you might want to take care to give some love to the Big Guy every once in a while. Because if you can come up with a better explanation than divine intervention for some of Notre Dame's more bizarre wins in the late '80's, I'd love to hear it. Besides which, a little humility of any sort can go a long way toward keeping a team focused in the good times and keep them lively even when "the breaks are going against the boys".
What we need here is a segue into the serious part of the article/essay. I can do that for you.
College football is a sport of both continuity and change. Everything is always in flux, but everything flows from one season to the next. It doesn't matter how bad Alabama has been, it means something when your team beats Alabama. It doesn't matter how bad Michigan has been, it means something when your team beats Michigan. It DOES matter how bad Oklahoma has been, because they sucked for some 15 years and even Nebraska got bored with kicking them like crack whores every year. Mind you, I seem to remember that Nebraska still has a losing record overall against OU (no idea on the reality of that) but, according to an obscure rule in the world of college football, a couple games behind in overall record is forgiven when the other team assembled a coke ring in the athletic dorms and ends up being investigated by the FBI, instead of just the NCAA, before disappearing from the limelight of college football for a decade and a half, mostly due to embarrassment that they even still exist.
Notre Dame is, once again, a team that people want to beat. However, teams that everyone wants to beat tend to lose a lot when other teams find out that they aren't that good. Which means that a team has to win a lot for it to mean something when they lose. Which brings us to the man who has been tasked with returning Notre Dame to glory and making Notre Dame's losses mean something. That man is, of course, the new genius on the block, Charlie Weis.
I have heard an awful lot about what a genius Charlie Weis is. And I know that Charlie Weis has done some impressive things in the NFL. In fact, Charlie Weis took Tom Brady and turned him into the Tom Brady that his is today, because Charlie Weis is a football genius. Almost like Charlie Weis, the genius who made Tom Brady a quarterback who is almost as much a god as Charlie Weis's Tom Brady, the man Tom Brady became when Charlie Weis turned Tom Brady into Tom Brady just like Charlie Weis did for Tom Brady.
Do I believe that Charlie Weis is a genius? Nope. No, I don't. At least not yet. Do I believe that Charlie Weis will fail miserably? Nope. No, I don't. At least not yet. What do I believe? I believe that Notre Dame is a much better team than they were, but things are not quite as right with Notre Dame as some would hope. I believe this latter point because there is such an expectation that Notre Dame is back that the counterarguments are brushed aside as though they were not even made.
I've seen a lot of geniuses come and go in my few years of watching college football and it's pretty rare that anybody stays a genius for very long. And for every Steve Spurrier, there's a Bill Walsh counter-example. Charlie Weis may be a genius, but what kind of genius is he? Is he a genius like Gary Barnett at Northwestern? Or is he a genius like Gary Barnett at Colorado? For that matter, I've never heard the term genius attached to Bo Schembechler, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, or Bear Bryant. They were not geniuses, they were great football coaches. And the finality of judgment does not measure one's impact on the way the game is played nearly as much as it judges a coach's ability to win them.
In the adventure of last year, it was understood that Penn State, Notre Dame and Alabama had returned. The problem is that it was not clear from last year whether their returns were, in the wording I invented in my head, strong returns or weak returns.
Imagine, if you will, the tide coming in on a beach. The thing about the tide is that it has a tendency to not be very clear on what it is doing from moment to moment and its changes are very slight from wave to wave. One can only see the change with several waves that steadily creep up the beach.
Consider also, in the analogy, that full moon and new moon high tides are stronger than regular high tides. When the sun is adding its gravitational energy to the moon's strong pull on the waters of the world, the extremes are that much more extreme. The questions to be answered then are just how high is the tide going to be and how long will it stay high? And is it going to leave a bunch of dead jellyfish on the beach when it leaves? Because those are gross.
I said previously that folks are desperately hoping that Notre Dame has returned and I still hold by that. It's not that I blame anybody for that, it's just a fact of life. Many college football fans want to see Notre Dame back and, for the traditionalist, it would be reassuring. However, I don't see the strength in their return that others see.
From what I can tell, Alabama's return was a weak return. They did not so much win games as much as other teams lost them. Tennessee fumbled two or three times inside the five-yard line and that saved the Tide in that game. Alabama was lucky to get out of other games and it wasn't until teams finally started taking Alabama seriously that the Tide starting losing. Were they stronger than most? Yes. Were they strong? No. At least not after they loss of Tyrone Prothro -- who was most of their explosiveness on offense. They were better than they were, but they were still weak last season. And now they lost all of the seniors who put them back on the map, which means they are going to have a tough time staying on top.
Penn State, in my opinion, made a strong return. They beat good teams and, though they were lucky to catch certain teams at certain times, they had a team that was going to be ready to play. They didn't wait for teams to beat themselves, they went out and won. Well, except against Michigan, who they have yet to truly solve. They had a very good defense before last season, and they weren't pushovers. All they needed were a few playmakers on the scoring side of the ball and, once they had those, they rebounded quickly.
What do I think of Notre Dame's return? I'm not sure. It's too covered over. I can't see for all the talk. There are so many writers talking about how Notre Dame is due to have the next twenty-two Heisman winners and never lose a game until 2073, I am snowed under and unable to see clearly. When everybody says that everything is so totally fine that you should invest in jerseys now while they are still available, it is hard to have confidence in one's own opinion. And my opinion is "not sold". At least not yet.
I've read a few things recently about how good Georgia Tech is and how well Chan Gailey plays in opening games. This is a case of people covering their asses even as they set up their next position. Honestly, if the Yellow Jackets win, it probably won't be through any fault of their own. But the best bet is that the Irish kick the holy shit out of Tech. Sure, GT has Calvin Johnson, but that's all they've got and the rest of the team is mediocre at best. Safe bet: Georgia Tech is going to lose and they are going to lose badly. In fact, they should lose very badly because they have no team aside from Calvin Johnson. But the writers, probably unconsciously, are covering themselves in case ND loses or wins a close one, even as they put themselves in a position to vote Notre Dame #1 when they do win. This is, of course, enhanced by the fact that Garrett Wolfe will probably run fairly well in OSU-NIU game, confirming peoples' fears about Ohio State's defense (Wolfe averaged 6.5 yards a carry and ran for 1580 yards in only nine games last season). Add in the fact that the offense will not score all that much in their Texas tune-up, as Tressel usually plays a keep-it-close game even against soundly overmatched teams, and people will loudly wonder what is wrong with Ohio State's offense.
Were I a predicting man, which is exactly what I am right now, I would guess Notre Dame beats Georgia Tech by about 42-21 and Ohio State wins about 35-14. If this is correct, Sunday morning will announce that the Notre Dame 21-point win is a destruction and complete domination, while Ohio State's 21-point win will be a game that limped into the W column.
They want ND to be back. And they are back, to a certain degree. But every argument that I hear for the return of Notre Dame has a counterargument that uses the same data for its conclusion. This leaves me with a lot of questions and just about zero answers:
Charlie Weis put a sign up in the Irish locker room saying "9-3 is not enough!"
USC is stewing about the fact that they finished the year 11-1. Why do Notre Dame's players need a written reminder that 9-3 is not enough?
Charlie Weis is bringing in great recruits thanks to his experience with the Super Bowl-winning Patriots and his ability to turn Tom Brady into a great quarterback.
But his current quarterback went to Notre Dame because he was and is a huge Notre Dame fan and he would kill and die to make sure the Irish win. Will a quarterback who is biding his time before going pro do everything possible to make sure he wins, or will he just protect himself while keeping an eye on his draft status? And since when has playing in the NFL been more important than Notre Dame? It wasn't like that when Lou Holtz was there.
Charlie Weis installed a pro-style offense that college teams can't compete with.
Yet he does not have pro-caliber players executing it. Ten years ago, Nebraska ran an offense that pro teams would laugh at, but the Huskers won three national titles with it. Isn't that the point? Especially at Notre Dame, which cannot gather conference championships to keep their team supplied with rings.
Charlie Weis's spread offense is revolutionizing the way offense is played.
But wouldn't one cold, wet, windy fall day in Indiana change turn it into an unworkable mess?
Charlie Weis's ability to keep it close against USC shows that Notre Dame is a national title contender.
Does that mean that Fresno State is just as good? Should Notre Dame and Fresno State play each other for the national title this year? And since when is a loss something to cheer about in South Bend?
Is it possible to talk about Notre Dame without mentioning that they gave up 617 yards to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl?
Okay, I know the answer to this one: No. Seriously, read any preseason article about Notre Dame. For all the talk about how the USC loss (a loss!) will be a great, defining moment of Charlie Weis's career, that OSU loss seems to come up in the papers an awful lot.
What will the future bode? Hard to tell. But, traditionally speaking, we should find out pretty soon. Every Notre Dame coach who has won a national title has won one in their third year at the helm. So, if the tradition holds up, the clock has officially begun ticking.
This article was first posted on September 1, 2006, on the off chance I'm right about any of this.