Heading into this weekend, only three undefeated teams remained in Division 1-A college football -- top ranked Kansas State, number two ranked Oregon, and third ranked Notre Dame. The formula to figure out who would play in the BCS national title game was pretty simple if things held to form: Kansas State and Oregon win out, they would play in Miami in January for the national championship.
All week long, the media and, to an extent, Irish fans were begging ND head coach Brian Kelly to begin politicking for a spot in the national title game. Tell them why you're better than kansas State, Coach! Kelly, who's been down this road before with Cincinnati in 2009 (and oddly enough, was in politics before becoming a football coach), knew better. Go win your games first, take care of business, then campaign if necessary.
In other words, campaigning is wasted breath if you wind up 10-2.
As it turns out, on a weekend where those top three schools were favored in their games by an average of nearly three touchdowns (and isn't that ALWAYS when the crazy stuff happens?), the top two teams went down, and now all Notre Dame has to do to play for the national title is beat a reeling, banged up Southern Cal squad next Saturday.
When the polls were released Sunday morning, Notre Dame was atop the Associated Press poll for the first time since November of 1993. If you recall, that was the week after the last "Game of the Century" that the Fighting Irish played in, a 31-24 over then top ranked Florida State.
The trip to the top of the mountain for that Irish unit didn't last long, though. A week later, Boston College showed up in Notre Dame Stadium for one of the wildest games in stadium history and defeated Notre Dame 41-39 on a 40-yard field goal by David Gordon as time expired. (This, by the way, is why I'm not responding to texts or tweets from people asking how happy I am that Notre Dame will be playing for the national title this season. They still have to beat USC in Los Angeles, which won't be easy. Despite being 11-0, nothing is easy for this Notre Dame football team.)
In my four decades of sports fandom, there may be no greater example of "don't take it for granted/you never know the next time you'll experience this" than the return of my alma mater to the top of the polls. When
Notre Dame haters college football fans talk of Notre Dame's "irrelevance" over the last 19 years, this is what they're pointing to. Or at least it should be.
Notre Dame's "relevance" since the halcyon years of the Lou Holtz Era has been a hotly debated topic. There's no denying their being, by and large, irrelevant in terms of national title contention. The data backs this up. But the people who state that their irrelevance is grounded in apathy over the Fighting Irish are incorrect.
Despite several years of underwhelming football, Notre Dame still sold tickets, drove television ratings, moved merchandise, and all the while managed to maintain their independence. This doesn't happen if you're irrelevant. (Hell, the fact that their relevance is a topic of debate inherently makes them relevant in the literal sense, no? Who debates about something irrelevant?)
But yes, within the specter of the lofty -- hell, the LOFTIEST -- portion of the polls, Notre Dame is relevant again. To put in perspective how long it's been, consider the following...the last time Notre Dame was number one in the AP poll:
* ...Houston had exactly ZERO sports talk radio stations. (The city's fifth will launch in January.)
* ...O.J. Simpson was the Irish's sideline reporter on NBC and was still eight months away from doing whatever he did with or without gloves.
* ...AOL 1.5 was still eight months away from being released for Microsoft Windows 3.x. Compuserve and Prodigy shook in their boots.
*...I hadn't even met my girlfriend/fiance/wife/ex-wife to be. So since Notre Dame was last number one in the AP poll, I got engaged, married, had three kids, moved four times, got divorced, changed careers, and now my older two kids are a year away from getting their driver's licenses. Damn, I'm old.
*...NAFTA got passed in the legislative houses of the United States, Canada, and Mexico three days later.
*....Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were engaged (despite the freshly rampant rumors that Jacko was a child molester).
*..."I Would Do Anything For Love" by Meatloaf was the number one song in the country.
*...the World Wide Web had just been born at CERN, which means that this is the first time EVER that Notre Dame fans can go to an internet message board and brag about their team. Also....
*...it means that porn actually cost money the last time Notre Dame was number one.
*...George Costanza had yet to move back in with his parents.
*...[OBLIGATORY FINANCIAL COMPARISON BULLET POINT] the average cost of new house was $113,200.00, the cost of a gallon of gas was $1.16, the average cost of a new car was $12,750.00, and a lap dance cost five bucks. (I may have made up that last one. Or maybe not.)
*...Joey Buttafucco was sentenced to six months in prison for statutory rape of Amy Fisher two days later.
*...Peyton Manning was a senior...in high school.
*...the following professional sports franchises didn't exist: Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, Vancouver Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, and Houston Texans. The Baltimore Ravens were still in Cleveland, and the Tennessee Titans were still the Houston Oilers.
As I mentioned earlier, the last time Notre Dame reached these lofty poll heights, it wasn't the end of an extended stint on top. It was a one week stay after a season long climb. In the end, that 1993 Notre Dame team didn't know how to handle it. They let down, and Boston College took advantage.
Nineteen years later (practically to the day), Brian Kelly doesn't anticipate a repeat:
"It's interesting -- I was down in the training room when the guys were popping in today. They all to a man know that it doesn't mean much if you're No. 1 for just three to four days. They understand the importance of the USC game. I was happy to see they have that kind of mentality, they know it's all about how we play against USC."
USC comes into the game this Saturday limping, literally and figuratively, at 7-4 and with their quarterback Matt Barkley nursing a shoulder injury after a brutal hit by UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr (who, perhaps appropriately is the son of former ND tailback Tony Brooks) in Saturday's battle for Los Angeles bragging rights.
Before the season, if someone had told you that this USC-Notre Dame tilt on Saturday would involve the number one team in the country (USC was the AP number one in the preseason.) and a four loss squad looking to salvage something from a lost 2012, I think most every college football fan would have believed it.
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They just would have had the teams mixed up.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. weekdays, and watch the simulcast on Comcast 129 from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.