"Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving."
–William Shakespeare, Othello
Of the 124 FBS teams who started last year undefeated (save one bowl-ineligible exception in Columbus), only one, Notre Dame, ended its regular season the same way. Going 12-0 is every team's quixotic delusion in August and only Notre Dame made it come true.
But with 60 minutes of rotten football, its reputation was left in the gutter. And when the first AP poll drops on Saturday morning, just like when the first coaches poll was released on Aug. 2, it could be enough to keep Notre Dame out of the top 10.
But that would be a giant mistake.
Alabama punked the Irish in last year's BCS National Championship, racing out to a 28-0 halftime lead and eventually winning 42-14. The massacre left Notre Dame's public standing in tatters and called its season-long body of work into disrepute.
It was the football equivalent of bullying chemistry nerds all semester, building up your confidence, challenging the toughest kid in school to a fight, then getting "pantsed" in front of everyone and revealing your less-than-ideal endowment.
Or at least that's how the story is told.
Those chemistry nerds Notre Dame beat up on last year weren't as dorky as they seemed. Ten of its 12 opponents made a bowl game, which was more than any other team in the nation. It handed Stanford one of just two losses, beat Oklahoma by 17 in Norman and torched Miami—everybody's favorite dark horse in 2013—by 38 points on a neutral field.
School's toughest kid took their milk money—sure. There's no two ways about that. But the Irish weren't crazy for thinking they could take him.
They also finished seventh in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings, one of just four teams to place top 15 in both offense and defense. Here's the full top 10:
That's pretty impressive company for the Irish, but their argument doesn't stop there.
Unlike Notre Dame, the other three highlighted squads all placed top six in the Preseason Coaches Poll. Here's how many starters all of those teams bring back (assuming, for now, that Johnny Manziel is eligible until proven guilty):
No. 1 Alabama: 13 (six offense, seven defense)
No. 3 Oregon: 15 (eight offense, seven defense)
No. 6 Texas A&M: 11 (six offense, five defense)
No. 11 Notre Dame: 13 (five offense, eight defense)
Of those four teams with elite balance last season, Notre Dame falls directly at the mean of returning starters. And the defense—its trademark constituent—is tied with Oregon's offense for the most returners among individual units.
So why is ND the only one that fell out of the top 10?
The answer lies mostly (if not solely) with reputation.
Notre Dame's has been dragged through the mud since Alabama flayed it on prime-time TV. Departed middle linebacker Manti Te'o earned a reputation as "the team's heart and soul," and suspended quarterback Everett Golson was the "sole engine that made the offense move."
The residuals, those sorry souls still standing in South Bend, have been discarded as overrated properties on an equally overrated team. Even WITH Te'o and Golson they were exposed as frauds before 26 million people; how is the team supposed to fare without them?
But those claims are inherently flawed. They fail to appreciate the massive contributions of guys like Stephen Tuitt and Louis Nix in the front seven. What other team has All-Americans comprising two-thirds of its defensive line?
They also overlook (rather hypocritically) how methodical and efficient Notre Dame's offense was last season. Even though it was censured as boring and dull (again: phony reputations), the Irish finished ninth in offensive F/+—ahead of alleged "powerhouses" like Oklahoma State.
Part of that was Everett Golson, but part of it was coaching and balance and scheme. Three starters are back on the offensive line, including All-American candidate Zack Martin on the blind side. And Tommy Rees, the nation's most game-ready backup, is a senior who won't let the ship start to sink.
Despite the stigma against it, Notre Dame was still on the precipice of a top-10 ranking from the coaches. It finished just one spot shy, looking up at Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, Stanford, Georgia, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Clemson, Louisville and Florida.
The case could be made for Notre Dame above half of those teams, but for most of them, that case could also be soundly refuted. There's some good top-end depth in college football this year, and nine of those squads are patently top-10 worthy. But one who ranked above the Irish sticks out as indefensible:
Let's speak once more of reputation, how idle and false it can be. In diametric contrast to Notre Dame, the Cardinals' final game was their best. They punched Florida in the mouth then coasted to a 10-point Sugar Bowl win—and it wasn't even as close as it sounds.
Between that game and the return of Teddy Bridgewater—one of the sexiest players at football's sexiest position—Louisville's reputation has far exceeded its worth. Voters who didn't watch the Cardinals all season remember that one enduring image against Florida, just like fans remember the image of Notre Dame getting pantsed in Miami.
But the Cardinals were actually pretty bad last season. They lost a home game to 5-7 Connecticut and were toasted (45-26) by Syracuse on the road. They needed overtime to beat Cincinnati in Louisville and bested 3-9 South Florida (also in Louisville) by just two points.
Southern Mississippi, who went 0-12 last season (and lost by a combined 55 points to SMU and Rice), led with 5:40 remaining before the Cardinals stormed back to win by four.
Step away from the computer and take some good, long, thorough time to digest that. Southern Miss was zero and freakin' 12. When the first AP poll drops on Saturday, will Louisville really be rewarded with another top-10 ranking?
Will Notre Dame really not?
Note: All "returning starter" figures via Phil Steele's College Football Preview