It wasn’t all that long ago that many in the college football world started to question the relevance of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. While the roots of that particular sentiment lie somewhere in the early 2000’s, it was starting to reach critical mass in the summer of 2011.
Before the 2011 season, ESPN writer, Wright Thompson, penned a short piece for a segment that we’ve come to know as, “The Notre Dame Eulogy.” It was brutal in nature, and although many Irish fans took it as another insult from the “worldwide leader,” Thompson’s tone was more sad than joyous.
The Irish followed that up with an 8-5 season that included losses to the USC Trojans, Michigan Wolverines, Stanford Cardinal, and Florida State Seminoles (Champs Sports Bowl). It was also the season that started with Notre Dame losing to the South Florida Bulls at home.
It certainly wasn’t the type of season that was meant to silence critics.
The following year, Notre Dame was once again under attack in the preseason. This time it was ESPN’s Rick Reilly. In a much more mean-spirited fashion that Wright Thompson, Reilly suggested that Notre Dame was irrelevant - and to go even further, they should be relegated to the Ivy or FCS.
It was ridiculous. Notre Dame, however, used it as motivation en route to a 12-0 regular season that also had a serious Heisman run from linebacker Manti Te’o.
The question of relevance was answered soundly, but the Irish fell short of a return to glory after a stomping from the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS Championship game.
The Irish followed their excellent 2012 season up with a 2013 campaign that ended with a Pinstripe Bowl Win and a 2014 season that ended with a Music City Bowl win. Both seasons were abject failures - especially after so much hope following the 2012 season.
While many would be quick to point to the 2015 season as a success with a 10-3 record, all three losses were to the best 3 teams that it played. The final loss was another major bowl blowout - this time to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl.
Between 2012 and 2015, Notre Dame went 39-13 and was 2-2 in bowl games, which basically about a 10-3 team. That looks fairly good, but we all know that it never amounted to much.
I’ll save the bandwidth here and just say... 4-8 was miserable and I never thought the sun was going to shine again.
None of us really knew what was in store for the Fighting Irish in 2017. Most guesses came inside of the 8-4 to 10-2 range. Those numbers would suggest that many will be right or close to being right - NO ONE saw this coming.
The season saw a resurgence in a style of play that a lot of Irish fans like to say is “Notre Dame football.” Notre Dame is running the football and playing sound defense. Even now, the Irish are 6th in the country in rushing yards per game (290) and a respectable 25th in scoring defense (20.4 ppg). They are also 19th in the country in scoring offense with 36.7 points per game.
These are all signs of a really good season, but so much still hangs in the balance to honestly make that determination.
Rather than focus on what could have been this season, I am solely interested in what can still be. Frustration sets in when the same bad result keeps happening over and over again. National title aside... Notre Dame has not won a major bowl game since the 1993 season.
Perhaps it’s destiny or fate that the last major bowl that the Irish won was in the Cotton Bowl, and now the Irish could lock that destination up with a win over the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto on Saturday.
This is why Saturday's game is so important. Outside of a miracle, Notre Dame will fall short of making the college football playoff. Still, an extremely successful season is still very much open to the Irish. A Cotton Bowl win over the Penn State Nittany Lions, for example, would be that final point to make.
Despite our predetermined feelings about Brian Kelly, it really does appear that the changes made after last year, are exactly what the Irish needed. What happens now, will be the ultimate test. It won't bring that elusive national championship this year, but two more wins and will bring more than hope and more than grand expectations.
It would bring the light, and extinguish so much of the negative vibes that still surround the program.
The frustration is real, but so is the hope if you let it inside you. So much is at stake in these final two games for the Irish - perhaps finally being able to claim a victory in a big bowl game will do exactly that.
Hopeful Jesus, hear our prayer.