In considering the Notre Dame football 2010 regular season, I can't help but wonder where the Irish fit in on the college football landscape. Within the past season there was a lot of bad, but also a lot of good, especially at and near the end.
Are the Irish ascending, as the faithful would like to believe, or are they still mired in mediocrity with no tangible signs of a long-term (or even short-term) return to prominence in sight?
One need only point at losses to Navy and Tulsa, and a beat-down at home at the hands of now No. 4 Stanford, as signs that the Irish are far from being a real contender in the BCS.
Yet, a near victory and last second loss to now No. 7 Michigan State, and late season victories over (at the time) 15th ranked Utah and a still-talented, albeit disheartened, USC team at the Coliseum would indicate that things may be looking up.
In fact, despite a sluggish 1-3 start, much has been gained for the Irish in Brian Kelly’s first season on the Irish sideline.
Finishing the season with three victories with a true freshman quarterback under center —in his first three starts, no less, and with several key starters out with injuries—might give the Irish faithful reasonable hope for a significant turn around beginning in 2011. Some would argue that the turnaround has already begun. So, where do the Irish fit in?
According to the CBS.com top 120 rankings, which considers record along with strength of schedule, the Irish finished ranked 36th in the nation.
While 36th is far from a BCS Championship, consider who they finished ahead of in that ranking, among others: USC, Michigan, Miami (FL), Florida and Texas. All are programs with great histories, some recent and some not so recent, but all assumed by most experts not to be out for good, but rather just temporarily down.
Yet, it’s Notre Dame and Notre Dame alone that must endure the repeated mantra of critics (dare I use the word "haters"?) that they are done forever, a relic of the past.
In their minds, there is no hope for the future of Notre Dame football due to factors such as an undesirable geographic location and overly demanding admissions and academic standards.
These things supposedly make recruiting 5-star players, especially those who are natives of warmer climates and/or more exciting urban areas, impossible. But as Kelly has said, he does not need a stable of 5-star recruits to win, just a bunch of smart 3- and 4-star guys who appreciate the tradition and what it means to be at Notre Dame, and who are willing to work hard, play hard and be coached.
For a team that has endured so much criticism over the past few years, so much misfortune (including the tragic death of student football videographer Declan Sullivan in mid-season), so much scrutiny of the program, so many coaching changes and so little positive press, the Irish are not far from being a top 10 team once again.
Kelly has quietly and patiently worked behind the scenes to change the culture in a positive way, ensuring that the small things are being done correctly so that the big things will fall into place as the next several years unfold.
The enthusiasm with which the Irish played the last few games of this season, especially defensively, and with so many key starters injured, is indicative of a program that is gaining the confidence needed to be, once again, the Notre Dame of old.
With that confidence will come more wins, and with those wins will come more top recruits. What will ultimately follow will be the public's and the media's renewed respect for a program that has meant so much to college football over so many years.