The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have awakened the echoes, shaken down the thunder and inspired whispers of BCS bowl berths and national championship runs with a 4-0 start that includes convincing wins against Michigan and Michigan State. But don’t let your first glance deceive you, this Irish team is not yet among the elite in college football.
The 2012 college football season began like any other for the Irish: discussions of the wealth of talent at many positions, a ranking on the fringe of the Top 25, and universal cringes at the team’s brutal schedule. But that is where the similarities ended, as the Irish opened the season 4-0 for the first time in a decade and have reinvigorated their national fanbase.
Unfortunately for this Notre Dame team and its overly-optimistic following, Notre Dame’s record and top 10 national ranking is not as much a product of its own quality, but the failings of its opponents.
The Irish began the season with a 50-10 win over Navy in Dublin, which looked very good initially. Yet after four weeks, it is clear that this is not the same caliber Navy team that Ricky Dobbs led a few years ago. Navy has since gone 1-3, most recently losing 12-0 to San Jose State.
Notre Dame then scratched out a three-point victory over Purdue. Although this is a much-improved Purdue team, they have showed some fragility recently as they conceded 41 points to Marshall at home last week.
Yet it is the strongest part of Notre Dame’s resume that provides the greatest uncertainty. While Notre Dame’s victory at East Lansing was supposed to be a marquee win for the 2012 campaign, the Spartans have since shown some serious question marks, trailing Eastern Michigan into the second half and losing to Ohio State in their next two games. And one should not forget their close home victory over a Boise State squad that has since played its way out of the AP Top 25 altogether.
Which brings us to Michigan. Despite being touted as a contender to play in the Rose Bowl at season’s end, the Wolverines were humiliated by Alabama to open the season and followed it up with a nail-biting home win over Air Force, who is 1-2 against FBS competition.
So although the performance of Notre Dame’s opponents are obviously out of its control, the fact that the Irish’s ranking is largely based on their victories over the Big Ten (arguably the fifth best conference in the nation this year) should cause hesitation in postseason predictions.
But luckily, that hesitation and all of this questioning of Notre Dame’s quality can end this week as the Irish square off with long-time rival Miami at Soldier Field.
While it is difficult to find an adequate comparison between Notre Dame and the other elite college football teams (except of course for Alabama, whose victory over Michigan makes Notre Dame’s win pale in comparison), the Miami Hurricanes hold the key.
Despite being 4-1 and 3-0 in ACC play, the Hurricanes' only loss came in a shellacking at the hands of Kansas State to the tune of 52-13. Miami’s running game was anemic as the Wildcats almost doubled their total yards. This is exactly what the Irish must do on Saturday.
Because looking at Notre Dame’s accomplishments so far reveal many question marks regarding the actual quality of their wins. And placing the Irish in the same class as Oregon and Florida State would certainly be a mistake at this point.
But if the Irish are good enough to crash the BCS party this year and make a surprising run at a national championship, this is the weekend to prove it. Soldier Field will provide a virtual home game for Notre Dame on Saturday and provide the Irish the chance to prove that they too can dominate this Miami team. And after the beatdown Kansas State handed the Hurricanes, a simple victory will not do in Notre Dame's quest to be considered among college football’s elite.