When I flipped over to NBC on Saturday and saw that San Diego State had just scored to take a 7-0 lead on the Fighting Irish at the latter's home field, I felt a very perplexing emotion run through my body: disappointment.
I was disappointed not at the amount the Aztecs were winning by, but rather the fact they were actually winning.
I felt a slight sadness—pity, even.
Over the years I've grown into a Notre Dame critic, a "hater" as I've been accused of, a Big Ten fan always skeptical of the Golden Domers' prominence, sneering at their losses with an "I told you so," and wondering if Ron Powlus still has an empty shelf where all his Heismans were supposed to go, or if he keeps his DVDs there.
One might think I would feel unmitigated glee seeing the Irish's highly-touted recruits being shut out by a squad who lost to Cal-Poly at home.
But there I was, disappointed. No schadenfreude, no celebration, no "I told you so."
I thought briefly of calling my psychiatrist, but alas, he's a Notre Dame alumnus and was probably at a loss for words worse than mine.
The Irish were supposed to be better than this, I thought.
They're supposed to be in the national title hunt in coming years. Even with a bad year this year, eight wins was a reasonable target with their schedule before the game yesterday.
Charlie Weis now has a roster full of his own recruits in the fourth year of his system being in place. The raw talent has increased significantly, with Jimmy Clausen, the nation's top prospect in 2007, playing quarterback.
And there they were, losing to a pitiful San Diego State team at home.
I realized that I just couldn't be happy about that much talent looking that lousy. Simply put, it's an affront to the football gods to be joyous at such underperformance.
If this were a mediocre Ty Willingham team, sure, but I wanted Illinois to sign a lot of guys on that sideline rather badly. Even if their coach was Dave Wannstedt, they shouldn't have been playing that badly.
Seeing Notre Dame losing at home with that much talent after last year's horrid season wasn't analogous to Michigan getting beat by Appalachian State. It was just sad and bordering on a concatenation of events so out-of-whack with expectations that its existence actually turns scary.
And so I could feel myself hoping Notre Dame would turn it around and win, and I will continue to hope they win in many select games.
Why would a self-professed Notre Dame critic do this?
I've long rejected the idea that college football "needs" Notre Dame to be good. Rather, I insist the sport merely needs a diverse array of contenders from differing parts of the country—Notre Dame included or excluded.
But what I realized yesterday was that even after smiling while Notre Dame performed to my skeptic's expectations last season, the college football world needs Notre Dame to be competitive.
They—we—need a Notre Dame that can at least compete with the Big Ten-caliber schools and beat Navy on a yearly basis.
Watching a hyper-talented Notre Dame struggle to beat bottom-feeder teams? There's absolutely nothing joyous in that, even to the harshest of Notre Dame skeptics, and it honestly turns offensive and disgusting to watch after a while.
We need them to be good—even if it's just to complain about their 9-3 teams getting BCS berths and their preseason top 10 rankings. Perhaps it's an homage to the college football gods; perhaps it's just a nefarious drug that causes us to reinvest interest in knocking Notre Dame off its media-constructed pedestal.
Either way, many positive things seemed to come out of Saturday's performance in the end, and while I won't even pretend to understand Irish football, I still see the team having a very solid year.
It's with these thoughts in mind that I rather tepidly say, "Go Irish."
My psychiatrist says I'm making splendid progress.
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