In reality, Notre Dame is much, much better than you're giving them credit for. And with Tommy Rees and his turnovers finally banished from South Bend, the odds are good that Notre Dame will revert to its 2012 form.
The similarities between the 2011 and 2013 seasons for Notre Dame are startling. In 2011, Notre Dame started 0-2 with crippling losses to USF and Michigan, both of which changed on turnovers. Who can forget Notre Dame's first drive of the season ending in a 96-yard fumble return for USF? Who can forget Tommy Rees literally dropping the ball in Michigan's red zone?
That nightmare season continued against USC when Dayne Christ was inserted for one play near the goal line, which ended up in a fumble and another near 100-yard fumble return. Only in the season finale against Stanford and Andrew Luck did Notre Dame stand no chance.
In 2013, the story was strikingly similar. The night loss at Michigan was aided by a brutal late first half interception by Rees. The home loss to Oklahoma was fueled by an early Tommy Rees pick-six that gave the Sooners an early 14-0 lead that changed the entire complexion of the game.
Of course, the Rees masterpiece came against Pittsburgh. The interception into the endzone as Notre Dame was going to take the lead. The brutal fourth quarter pick that eventually gave Pitt the lead. It was one of the worst losses I have ever seen in my life -- so rare in football is the game in which the dominant team plays so much better than the opponent yet losses. But, that is the magic of Tommy Rees.
As in 2011, Notre Dame lost the finale to Stanford on the road. But in 2013, they battled the Cardinal better on The Farm than Oregon did, succumbing only when a final drive was thwarted by, you guessed it, a Tommy Rees interception.
If you've watched Notre Dame football as long as I have - my Dad's a grad and his whole family are Domers - you have watched a lot of Notre Dame losses in the past 20 years since Lou Holtz left. The difference between Brian Kelly's "bad" teams and those of his predecessors is striking.
Notre Dame has not gotten blown out - save for the Alabama game, naturally - since 2010. That is three full regular seasons where Notre Dame could have conceivably won every game they played. I know that may not sound like a big deal if you root for Alabama or Ohio State, but if you root for Notre Dame, it's a sign things have changed.
Kelly has revitalized the Notre Dame program through stellar recruiting and a winning attitude that, shockingly, had gone missing. While the national media loves to criticize Kelly's red-faced antics on the sidelines, they have made the mission at Notre Dame clear again.
Notre Dame is closer to being great than being bad. That's not something you could say under the past three coaches. We've seen what Kelly has been able to do at previous stops. As a UConn football fan, I saw firsthand how Kelly took Cincinnati from a good football program to the cusp of the national title.
As we look ahead to the 2014 season, everything for Notre Dame seems eerily familiar to the lead-up to the magical 2012 season. There were a lot of questions surrounding just how far the talent had come. The 2011 season, without being dissected, appeared to be a failure, with bad losses and an unranked finish. They went into 2012 with an unproven quarterback and an antsy Irish public questioning where Brian Kelly was the guy.
There was also the matter of the 2012 schedule, which looked beyond daunting. It featured road games against Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC, with Stanford and Michigan also on the slate. That supposed murderer's row still proved plenty difficult - Stanford won the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma played in the Cotton - but it was not the end of the world.
As we go into 2014, there is a distinct lack of buzz surrounding the Notre Dame program nationally. Forget that Everett Golson has returned or that redshirt Malik Zaire looked like a new-age Steve Young in the Spring Game, the questions remain. If the talent is there, why were they 8-4 last year? Was 2012 just a confluence of lucky breaks? Did Alabama expose them as frauds?
There is also the matter of the 2014 schedule, which looks beyond daunting. Road games against Florida State, Arizona State and USC. Visits to South Bend from Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina and Louisville. Those are 7 teams that could be in the preseason top 25, including a road game at the definite preseason #1.
The rise of mega-conference has diluted the schedules for nearly every school outside of the Big 12, which still has a round robin. The Pac-12, with 9 conference games, comes closest to keeping its teams' strength of schedules high. But the SEC, Big Ten and ACC - by virtue of 14 teams and 8 conference games - do not. When you don't play five of the other teams in your conference, there is a high probability that one or two or three of those five teams are going to be good.
Notre Dame, as an independent that has always scheduled aggressively, has no such problems. It plays 10 major conference teams, with only Rice and Navy being the exceptions. Some exceptions, right? Rice is the defending Conference USA champion and Navy won 9 games last year. Alabama plays Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina.
So the stars are aligning, again, for Notre Dame. They are going to start the season under the radar, or at least what passes for under the radar in South Bend. If they can get past Michigan in week two, they should stroll past Syracuse and Purdue to enter October 4-0, when they will play Stanford and the season begins proper. For a daunting schedule, it certainly helps that they play 3 of their 4 easiest games in the first month of the season.
Notre Dame has the talent now to play with anybody. The Spring Game was littered with underclassmen on both sides of the ball who had multiple stars attached to their name in high school. Brian Kelly has proven he can build a winner.
The bar at Notre Dame has always been set to win every single game. I don't think that's changed.
But the goal is also to win the National Championship every year and that hurdle has been lowered. At 11-1, Notre Dame will certainly be in the playoff.
However, even at 10-2, Notre Dame will likely get consideration based on that schedule. It will depend on the losses, but recent history and parity suggests that there is always a 2-loss team lurking in the Top 5 in the final BCS standings. And that was before such a significant emphasis has been placed on strength of schedule.
Notre Dame should have been at least 10-2 last year. If they can do that again this year, they will be playing on New Year's Day.
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