The Preseason AP Poll is out and for the third time in four years the Irish find themselves on the outside looking in. The writers have Notre Dame pegged at No. 32 with 31 total votes, placing them a spot above Missouri and one below Randy Edsall's Connecticut Huskies.
Some fans will say Notre Dame was slighted, that a team with so much highly rated talent deserves a spot in the rankings. Others will claim they deserve zero votes based on the team's performances the past three seasons. And then of course there will be the curmudgeons that will cry and moan and gnash their teeth about how being ranked behind teams like Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Houston just shows how far the Irish have fallen. After finishing a diatribe about how Leahy never would have stood for this, the third group will go back to yelling at kids to get off their lawns.
Which group is right?
None of them. Actually, the voters' conclusion was a very fair one.
Being placed just outside the Top 25 means that about half the voters think Notre Dame is a Top 25 team, half do not. Let's make an assumption that the research most AP voters do before casting their preseason ballot consists of picking up and skimming a preview magazine, watching a couple snippets of College Football Live, and trying to remember what they saw last season.
The performance of the 2009 Irish could not have left many positive memories and that surely affected a handful of voters, but let's take it a step further and pretend they're being totally objective and looking at the circumstances of Hypothetical Team X. The Irish preview would look something like this:
* Their record-breaking quarterback and record-breaking wide receiver both left early to go to the NFL.
* The team is also replacing their head coach and transition to new schemes on offense (pro-style to spread) and defense (4-3 to 3-4).
* The new starting quarterback was a very highly touted prospect coming out of high school, but he's a redshirt sophomore with almost no game experience and is coming off a major knee injury.
* There are nine starters returning on defense from last season, but that defense was the worst in school history last season.
* Three starting offensive linemen must be replaced.
* Their top receiver and top tight end are both one of the best three in the country at their respective positions and future first rounds picks.
* They have a lot of young, highly regarded talent on both sides of the ball, but it's still very young.
* The schedule is relatively soft (play two preseason ranked teams, highest one rated No. 15) and they have only three true road games.
I'd venture a guess that at least 75 percent of voters don't have extensive knowledge of Notre Dame's situation and look at a summary like the one above to base their decisions. That's not a harsh criticism by any stretch, just reality. Making a judgment solely off those bullet points could lead to the conclusion that this is a young, talented team that has potential but could have a lot of growing pains. It's a reasonable conclusion that isn't far from the truth. However, people who follow the program closely and have deeper knowledge of the circumstances and situations surrounding the team may have a slightly different view.
For one, I think the majority of the country is underrating the talent littered all over the Irish roster. There are impact players on both sides of the ball that will be well-known by the end of the year. You hear Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and sometimes Manti Te'o being thrown around this preseason, but Darius Fleming, Ethan Johnson, and Armando Allen could be household names by November as well. Plenty of names won't get the acclaim nationally, but Irish fans will see guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore, Steve Filer, Jonas Gray, and Tyler Eifert blossom into playmakers.
Analysts also may be underrating the impact of having Brian Kelly leading the team. Kelly has been successful at every stop in his 19 year coaching career and the impact is typically immediate. Listening to player interviews and hearing practice reports leads one to believe there have been some stark (and positive) changes to the program's culture since he took over, something that should manifest itself on the field this fall.
If I had a vote I would place the Irish between No. 21 and No. 25 on my preseason ballot. This is a talented team with high potential an ideal schedule to ease in a new quarterback, but there is also a laundry list of questions to be answered and a whole lot of mental scar tissue from three disastrous years to overcome.
The maturation process will be a gradual one and the Irish will encounter some bumps along the way, but come January when the final poll is released there's no doubt in my mind that Notre Dame will find itself with a ranking next to its name. How high will that ranking be?
Come on, it's preseason! Let a brother dream...