Eleven months ago, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish parlayed an upset win over Oklahoma in Norman into a Top 3 ranking en route to their first BCS National Championship Game berth.
The Sooners are hoping for a similar result this Saturday.
Bob Stoops leads his 14th-ranked Oklahoma squad into South Bend this week in what will cap a home-and-home agreement between two of the nation's most prestigious programs. Last season saw the Sooners get thrashed for 20 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Irish finalize the score at 30-13. It proved to be a confirming victory for Notre Dame, proof positive that Brian Kelly's squad deserved its spot in the national conversation.
The shoe is probably more on the other foot this time around. With two weeks to prepare, the Sooners are hoping they've used this time to build something special.
The offense finally fired on all cylinders in a Week 3 win over Tulsa, with Blake Bell looking sensational in his first start. Oklahoma has also given up just 27 points through its first three games, good for a nine-per-game average that's fifth in the nation.
Notre Dame's national championship hopes, on the other hand, are looking slim through the first third of the season. The No. 22 Irish boast a loss to a shaky Michigan team and nearly lost again each of the past two weeks.
In the end, the Irish pulled off second-half comebacks against both Purdue and Michigan State, saving the possibility that this meeting with Oklahoma could catalyze something special again.
Taking a trip to Pasadena might be out of the question—based on our first few weeks, I have a feeling we'll have at least two undefeated major-conference teams in 2013—but we're a long way from writing anyone off in the BCS-bowl race.
For both Notre Dame and Oklahoma, a major litmus test awaits Saturday.
With that in mind, let's check in before the weekend's action in South Bend, highlighting the game's top storyline and predicting the outcome.
When: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
Spread: Oklahoma -3.5 (Vegas Insider)
Sooo...About These Quarterbacks
I hope you brought your parka, because I have some breaking news that will blow you away: Quarterbacks are important. Yes, I know, when someone brings such a revolutionary and controversial point to the forefront, your natural inclination is to go crazy and start swinging Easton bats at pinatas. But calm down. It'll be OK.
The most superest importantest position in football, as it tends to be, is at the forefront for both teams this week. Oklahoma will roll the dice with Bell for a second straight game after his strong debut against Tulsa, while those in South Bend are doing their weekly hand-wringing ritual about the state of Tommy Rees.
Let's start with Rees, mostly because he's the more easily dissected commodity. Looking at the overall numbers, it's easy to say that the Notre Dame signal-caller is having the best season of his career. He's averaging just under 300 yards per week through the air, thrown eight touchdowns against two interceptions and avoided making too many costly mistakes.
But strip away the Irish's wins against Temple and Purdue, two relative cupcakes, and the concerns start pouring out with a talented Oklahoma defense on tap.
Rees threw two critical picks against Michigan and then missed the target on 20 of his 34 pass attempts last week against Michigan State. In two games above the college football median, Rees has completed 43 of 85 passes for 465 yards and three touchdowns against two interceptions.
Not exactly encouraging.
Unlike in Rees' previous stints as the Irish starter, however, he hasn't gone into his shell after less-than-stellar outings. Now a senior, he speaks with command in the huddle and has taken an unquestioned leadership role with this club.
"That's something as a leader, as a quarterback, I've always felt I had the confidence in myself to do," Rees said, according to Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune. "It's something I've really worked hard at and developed over the past couple of years—being more vocal and taking that accountability and that responsibility to be the guy and bring the team together."
The Irish will need more than leadership to beat Oklahoma. If quarterback play were 80 percent leadership and 20 percent natural ability, Tim Tebow would be the best quarterback in the NFL.
But it seems that, no matter how dire the situation gets, Notre Dame players and the coaches have Rees' back at this point.
Which is possibly more than what we can say about his counterpart. Bell, a Ben Roethlisbergerian 6'6" behemoth of a quarterback, makes just his second start on Saturday. He set a school record for most yards in a first start (413), threw four touchdowns without an interception and gave the offense a steadiness that was lacking under freshman Trevor Knight.
And yet: It was one game. Against Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane are 113th in the nation in points allowed and lost to Bowling Green by 27 points. Projections of Bell becoming the next Sam Bradford might be a little premature. Remember, this is the same kid who lost his job to Knight in camp and may do so again with even the slightest sign of atrophy.
Oklahoma has the greater talent at the quarterback position; it's hard to question that. But we may find out where the paradigm falls between talent and stability this week.
The thing about both Notre Dame and Oklahoma is that it's hard to trust either side. Big Game Bob's nickname has been a bit of a facade for years now—it seems that every time the Sooners really need a win to get into the national championship conversation, they fall just short.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is...Notre Dame. Brian Kelly's squad has shown an increasing penchant for winning contests, only no one is ever quite sure how it happens. The Irish have won seven games by one possession over the past two seasons and eight times scoring 22 or fewer points.
It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing style, but you can't knock the hustle. They've become the Chicago Bears or Pittsburgh Steelers of college football, grinding out close wins and getting one or two big plays when needed. Nearly two full calendar years have passed since Notre Dame last lost in South Bend.
I'm not totally sure how—probably by one score, with the overarching credit going to the defense—but the Irish have earned enough goodwill for me to give them the nod, ever so closely, at home.
Score: Notre Dame 24, Oklahoma 21
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