One would have to go back to the year 1988 to find an undefeated Irish football squad, and the most recent National Championship team. By anyone’s account, that is a long time for such a storied program to reach the apex of college football. While other major programs have endured extreme downturns over that same time-frame(See Oklahoma, USC, and Alabama) they have each found a way to race back to the top and hoist the trophy at year’s end. What is so perplexing to most Irish fans though, is how their program has remained soiled with the stain of mediocrity.
Since Lou Holtz left Notre Dame in 1996, Irish fans have watched five different men walk the sideline, all with similar results, excluding George O’Leary who never coached a game. Even though the college football world has done everything in their power to help keep the Irish relevant, at times it feels like that ND has turned their back on them. They still refuse to lower academic standards across the boards, that would allow certain athletes into the program. The University still takes a hard stance of the separation of academics and athletics, and while some would commend them, others find a level of hypocrisy in that decision. The days of the Irish being the only team on TV every week are done, and if you also take into consideration the reduction of scholarships, the playing field is a bit more even than what fans witnessed in prior eras.
The University has done a wonderful job of creating and updating the campus, but most would still consider South Bend anything but your typical college town. Instead of being able to blend the existence of city and campus, Notre Dame does its best(and rightfully so ) to separate the two.
The Irish are also fighting the elements during the winter months, and this is one area they cannot contend. While schools like Texas, Alabama, Florida State, and USC can offer incredible scenery and consistently warm weather, the Irish can only offer a dilapidated city and lake effect snow. For all of these reasons and more, the Irish have not only fallen behind other programs, but are dangerously close to losing any remaining relevance in today’s college football landscape.
Conference realignment and a new playoff system is the newest obstacle in Notre Dame’s way. While the Irish still may find a place to put their piece of the puzzle, it is far from a guarantee. Notre Dame will have to win and win often if they have any hopes of making the four team playoff. In what Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 Commissioner, deemed an “open marketplace for all schools”, Notre Dame will still have very little room for error. Irish fans will have to be patient and see how this plays out over the next 4-5 years, before passing judgment on this the new system. It will definitely be very interesting to see if it provides a truly viable opportunity for the Irish to have a shot at another National Championship.
That’s not to say that all is dark and gloomy in South Bend, there just seems to be more questions than answers right now. Most fans would recognize the improved play on the field in 2011, over the 2010 season. Even with the not so fond memories of the Jonas Gray’s fumble against South Florida, the final thirty seconds in Ann Arbor, and a second half collapse in Orlando in the Champs Bowl, the Irish improved in a lot of areas on the field last year.
Brian Kelly and staff, meanwhile, have been very busy putting together another very talented recruiting class, and should start seeing the results of their hard work in the upcoming season. The Irish face an extraordinarily tough schedule in 2012, which is rated the #1 toughest by CBS Sports. While most fans would agree that an undefeated season is not a realistic expectation, they are hoping to see a team that plays consistent and smart football, and challenges teams like Oklahoma and USC from start to finish. If Notre Dame can do all of this, it is not unreasonable to think they could collect 8-10 wins this season.
If the Irish fan base could convey one clear message to the University and it’s football program, it would probably go something like this: The days of kids growing up and watching the Irish contend every year on TV are gone. The days of parents who remember the time when the Irish ruled the college football world, and pass those memories along to their kids are slowly fading away. If Notre Dame is ever going to regain its glory, and return to prominence – this is the time to do it. If another five years pass, and the Irish are still living in the world mediocrity, a true resurgence may not be possible.