I vividly remember when the Notre Dame football program hit rock bottom.
The day was Oct. 30, 2010, and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane was in South Bend to take on a middling 4-4 Notre Dame squad led by first-year head coach Brian Kelly. But just days before, student videographer Declan Sullivan had died tragically when the mobile tower from which he was filming the Irish's practice collapsed.
Sullivan's death made football exactly what it is: Just a game. But an Irish victory would be the first step in a lengthy healing process.
Well, the commencement of that healing process was delayed by Notre Dame's stupefying 28-27 loss to Tulsa in which starting quarterback Dayne Crist was lost for the season due to a torn left patellar tendon, marking the beginning of the shadowy Tommy Rees era.
It was the second loss in as many weeks for the Irish, the first of which was a thoroughly embarrassing 35-17 defeat to Navy, during which the Mids' triple-option offense gouged Notre Dame's defense for 367 rushing yards.
So, as it was, the Irish stood with a losing record on that eerily depressing afternoon in South Bend.
They were the carcass on the side of the deserted road that the vultures pounced upon and shredded to pieces. Most notable among those vultures were ESPN's Rece Davis and Mark May. Following Notre Dame's two loathsome losses to Navy and Tulsa, Davis recited a rather negative spiel outlining the Irish's less than slim chances of returning to college football's mountaintop. Following is a small segment.
"It has been 22 long years since Notre Dame sat atop the college football world. It will be at least 22, if not 122 or 222 years before Notre Dame is in such a position once again."
Davis' rant was followed by another from his colleague and unabashed Notre Dame "hater" Mark May.
"I bought into head coach Brian Kelly's five-minute plan. I bought into Brian Kelly's past, what he was able to do and build at other schools. You can call me the biggest rat in America because, yes, I ate the cheese and I swallowed the cheese. But if you look at Notre Dame, as long as they continue to water down their schedule with teams from Conference USA, from the Mid-American Conference, from the Mountain West Conference, they will not be able to compete for national championships because they can't beat those teams. They can't stop Navy. Their defense has been terrible! They've been horrendous!"
Mr. May's point would have held firm with a solid foundation, but it only appeared formidable on the surface. Indeed, Notre Dame scheduled teams from Conference USA (Tulsa), the Mid-American Conference (Western Michigan) and the Mountain West Conference (Utah) in 2010. Yes, it was a rather weak schedule.
Yet that schedule was also an anomaly. In the 28 games the Irish have played since a 28-3 victory over Utah—the Utes have since moved to the Pac-12 Conference—in November 2010, only one non-BCS school has appeared on the schedule: Air Force, a member of the Mountain West Conference, last season.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that Notre Dame has never played a team from the FCS.
And what's even more impressive is the Irish's 23-5 record since that victory over Utah two years ago, which includes this season's 12-0 record entering the BCS National Championship Game. Not only have the Irish earned their undefeated record, but they've also earned a No. 1 ranking in the process.
They've made Davis look quite foolish, for it only took them two years to "sit atop the college football world once again," rather than the 122 or 222 that he proposed.
But to sit atop the college football world and remain there, as well as to silence the haters, will require one more daunting task: To defeat Alabama on Jan. 7 in Miami. The Crimson Tide has earned the reputation as college football's benchmark, meaning a victory will prove that the Irish are indeed an elite team.
Until then, the Notre Dame haters will claim that the Irish are undeserving of their No. 1 ranking, and that Alabama will crush them like an empty soda can. They'll say Notre Dame doesn't have the talent to compete with the Tide. They'll produce any reason imaginable as to how Brian Kelly and Co. defeating Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide is an impossibility.
The Irish are tantalizingly close to reaching college football's true summit.
They're also just as close to silencing haters such as Mark May and Rece Davis.
Just beat Alabama, and they will have officially risen completely from the darkness into the light.
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