Back in the early 1990s, video game death was considerably more permanent than it is now. Few games allowed you to save or keep track of your progress, meaning that no matter how far you made it, when your number of lives hit zero, you got a "Game Over" and sent back to the main menu. You had to start from the beginning, no matter what level of success you had previously attained.
Thankfully a lot of these games allowed you to utilize the second controller, meaning a friend could join you on these interminable, impossible journeys. Sometimes, usually during a sleepover where there was no sleep and both parties were fueled by hours-old pizza, Surge and Doritos, you would get into the zone and start rolling. Levels that were previously unbeatable fell to your tsais or nunchuks or machine guns or fists and nothing could touch you. It felt amazing, and you would ride that wave until you reached the big boss. On the precipice of immortal video game glory, you plunged in, expecting the momentum to carry forward.
And you would get your ass handed to you. Fireballs were coming from the left side of the screen in addition to the right and why was there lightning and oh god the floor was collapsing. All of the hard work evaporated and you were back to square one. Your confidence was quickly shattered, just on the edge of finally achieving the ultimate goal.
That's kind of what the 2012 season felt like for Notre Dame. The Irish hadn't survived a month of September undefeated since 2002 and had lost three straight to Michigan in heartbreaking fashion, so just getting to October unmarred was a treat. Then there was the destruction of Miami, the survival against Stanford and the Tommy Rees victory over BYU. Then there was Oklahoma.
I went down to the Oklahoma game with a couple friends and I can say with no hesitation they were the nicest fans I've ever encountered anywhere. One random guy bought me a beer before the game, just because we had been talking to him and his wife in line. Why were they so polite? Because in their mind, there was no chance Notre Dame was going to win the game. Before heading down to Norman on Saturday, we visited the federal building memorial in Oklahoma City. We overheard one of the tour guides there telling a group that was wearing a mix of OU and ND gear "Yeah, I go to Oklahoma State, but I'm rooting for the Sooners tonight. They're going to show you boys what real football is."
Oklahoma did not in any way show Notre Dame what real football was that night. The next week against Pitt everything almost became unraveled, but Everett Golson threw on his Superman cape and Touchdown Jesus blew the field goal wide and the Irish survived, celebrating the victory with pummelings of helpless Boston College and Wake Forest squads (Go ACC!). In those two weeks, Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State all fell. The Irish were number one, and after weeks of trying to figure out where they might be bowling, it was set in stone: Beat the Trojans, play for the title.
And that's what ND did, with a goal line stand thrown in to add to the drama and euphoria of vanquishing Kiffin for the second straight time in the Coliseum. There were a flurry of e-mails and phone calls and texts, and within 36 hours dozens of us had booked flights and hotels in South Florida and a bus to take us to the stadium. We were going to the ‘ship.
The ‘ship did not go so well, as you may remember. Notre Dame got to the top of the mountain and was promptly thrown off by the Tide. It was a beating so thoroughly brutal that you had plenty of time to digest it as it happened, so by the time the clock hit zero, you had gone through the stages of grief. It felt just like going against that final boss, feeling great as you walked into their lair and then realizing you never had a chance at all.
But the reaction of the Notre Dame team after the game wasn't "We just didn't play Irish football." (Thank God. Michigan sucks, by the way.) To a man, the players and coaches essentially said "We know what it takes to get here. Now we know what we need to be do to win once we're here." Louis Nix recently said he watches the title game multiple times per week, and that is an important thing here because:
The Alabama game is as much a theme of this 2013 season as anything else.
It symbolizes the two main goals of the team, which are to run the table again to get to Pasadena, and the strong desire to compete and win the crystal trophy this year. The Alabama game also will be brought up by those doubting the Irish every step of the way. That's fine. There is not a thing Notre Dame can do that will cause most of the haters to adjust their opinion, but the thing that will do the most damage is the one thing we all want the most: To win.
The Irish are back at the same place as you and your sugar-fueled friend were after the "Game Over" screen. There is a long, arduous journey ahead, and when they get to the end, they know a big, scary monster awaits. But they also know - after failing and failing and failing so many times - that they can get there. It is not impossible. Tough? Sure. Absolutely. But very, very possible.
The only game on the 2013 schedule that the Irish will be more than a slight underdog in is the Stanford trip, and who knows how both teams will look come Thanksgiving. The Notre Dame defense is absolutely loaded. The offense has a combination on the left side of the line that teams dream about building, a stable or four-star or better running backs to go behind it and a bunch of talented options at receiver. The Tommy Rees thing is definitely a factor, but he went 8-4 as a starter in 2011 with a team that wasn't nearly as good as this one. He's better, the team around him is better...I'll have faith.
Irish fans always assume the worst is going to happen, and after the last decade or two, it's easy to understand why. People are already freaking out about the defensive line depth in 2014 and Brian Kelly maybe going to the pros. It is exhausting. I encourage you: Stop. This team is really good. It might not go undefeated, but it's going to win a lot of games. Winning games is fun, so I suggest you not worry about boogiemen coming out of the shadows and just sit back with your friends, binge on your preferred mix of caffeine and alcohol and enjoy the ride.
(I have had friends tell me they don't want to get too excited because of the fear of disappointment. I've given up on managing expectations, because I've gone into season and games with lower expectations and the pain after losses is basically the same. Might as well enjoy that hope and anticipation.)
Five things I'm really looking forward to this season:
1) I want to see how the offense continues to evolve. It'll take a step back with the read option considering Rees' foot speed limitations, but there are three tight ends to move around, a bunch of guys who can play the slot or tailback and a strong offensive line to keep the whole thing humming. Oh, and on the outside, there are two very capable receivers in T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels to take some shots deep and keep defenses honest. If someone else can break out (Chris Brown or Corey Robinson), even better.
2) Jaylon Smith. This is kind of simple and kind of boring, but when you get a recruit the caliber of Smith who comes along with the breathless reports that follow the blue-chip defenderr around, it's really exciting. Danny Spond's retirement is a major disappointment for Spond, the team and Irish fans well aware of the caliber of player and person the linebacker is, but Smith getting a trial by fire could be very, very entertaining.
3) The defensive line should resemble one of the finest SEC vintages, with two first-round picks (Tuitt and Nix), an incredible rush linebacker who essentially plays DE (Shembo), a stud sophomore (Day), a steady senior backup (Schwenke) and some intriguing freshmen of the true (Rochell) and redshirt (Jones) variety. They are going to hurt people.
4) I want Zack Martin to get national recognition and win the Outland Award. The linemen honors tend to just go to whoever has the preseason hype (Jake Matthews at A&M and Taylor Lewan at Michigan this summer), but if the Irish running game is deadly and Prince Shembo can get around Lewan a few times, Martin might get the recognition he deserves.
5) A badass secondary. The Irish defensive backfield was very competent last season, but also very safe. I want to see a bunch of safeties and nickel backs flying around the middle of the field destroying people and forcing picks while the corners lock receivers down on the outsude. There is a lot of young, high-end talent to utilize (Shumate, Redfield, Luke, etc.), and I'm excited to see the results.
Again: It's going to be a fun season. Enjoy it in the stadium and at your tailgates and with your friends and here on OFD and enjoy it on Twitter and enjoy it on the boards if you can find a sane one. Just enjoy it.