This is a column about Notre Dame, but allow me to begin with a slightly digressive query: Has there ever been a more reviled college football coach than Charlie Weis?
Over the weekend, following a shutout loss to Texas, the University of Kansas mercifully put the Weis era out of its misery. Final tally: Two-and-a-half seasons, 28 games, six victories. To be fair, some of this wasn’t Weis’s fault – there are few jobs in major college football as bleak as head coach at Kansas, a school that regards the fall as a leafy and overlong prologue to basketball season.
But Weis has now established his ineptitude in multiple positions, so much so that he’s starting to make Lane Kiffin seem like Bill Walsh in comparison, so much so that five years after he was fired as a blundering college head coach for the first time, the school he napalmed is just now recovering from his devastating impact.
As I said, this is a column about Notre Dame, and this is now the fifth year at Notre Dame for Weis’s successor, Brian Kelly, and the stunning incompetence and blistering arrogance of the Weis era are no longer viable excuses for failure. Already, by virtue of a 12-1 season in 2012, Kelly is arguably the most successful coach at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz retired to get his PhD back in the mid-1990s. And yet, both the Irish and Kelly find themselves in a peculiar spot: Undefeated this season, headed into the meat of their schedule and ranked ninth in the country by the Associated Press, it’s pretty much impossible to know at this point whether they are utterly overrated or oddly underrated.
Last Saturday outside of New York City, Notre Dame defeated Syracuse 31-15, a game in which Irish quarterback Everett Golson (who’s already garnering Heisman Trophy buzz) completed 25 consecutive passes, while also turning the ball over four times. It’s possible that Notre Dame is very good again, as they were in 2012 (or at least good enough to win the majority of games on their schedule); and it’s possible, while running an eight-game scheduling gauntlet that includes Stanford (next Saturday), Florida State (October 18), Arizona State (November 8), Louisville (November 22) and USC (November 29), the Irish will slide back into the default position of Kelly’s other seasons as Irish coach, all of which included at least four losses.
A little context here: For decades, largely because its ties to both influential “subway alumni” and the cradle of Catholic sportswriters in New York City, Notre Dame was consistently afforded favoritism in the national media. This is not a hot take I’m offering up for debate; this is a historical fact, as evidenced most notably by 1966, when the Irish tied Michigan State, and both teams finished otherwise undefeated, yet Notre Dame still won the national championship. The “Notre Dame is overrated” canard was a meme before the Internet existed, largely because it was true.
But everything’s different now. The College Football Playoff field will be determined by the votes of an (at least ostensibly) impartial committee, rather than the votes of sportswriters over-influenced by regional politics. And, for multiple reasons – demographic shifts, the democratization of television, steady negative headlines – Notre Dame is no longer in the position of national power it once held (the fact that the Irish have “their own network” in NBC no longer seems like much of a thing now that every conference also has its own network, too).
Instead, the Irish are viewed with a healthy amount of skepticism, largely because of how that 2012 season ended: With a thoroughly embarrassing loss to Alabama in the national championship game, a loss that seemed to imply Notre Dame was little more than a paper tiger, squeezing out wins over imperfect teams before hurtling headlong into the Crimson Tide buzzsaw.
A few weeks after that game, Deadspin revealed that Irish linebacker Manti Te’o had been dating an apparition, and the whole seamy mess felt like a heavy-handed metaphor for Notre Dame’s place in the college football universe in 2014: Larded-up and romanticized pablum, without a whiff of actual truth behind it.
It may be that this is a different Notre Dame team. It may be that the Irish are tougher, and more efficient and more prepared for the series of tests they are about to face. Golson, a redshirt freshman quarterback on that team in 2012, is clearly a far better player than he was, but I don’t know if that will be enough to win the hearts and minds of the selection committee. What happens if, say, Notre Dame loses to Florida State and wins every other game on its schedule in unconvincing fashion? Would they get in to a four-team playoff over a school from the stacked SEC West, a team that loses one game and misses out on the SEC Championship game on a tiebreaker? If the Irish keep winning as they did in 2012, squeaking out victories and sliding slowly upward in the polls, will we actually believe in them this time around?
It used to be that inherent systemic favoritism toward Notre Dame was a given. It took decades – including the Herculean efforts of duds like Charlie Weis – to tear that idea down. So now the Irish are once again at a crossroads, on the verge of building themselves back up into a viable force again, and on the verge of tumbling back into another era of mediocrity. At this point, I’m not sure what the truth is.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb