There is a short list of things that can inflame the smoldering anticipation of the Notre Dame football season into a full blaze, and one of those comes in three-letter form: BCS.
The taste of success is still fresh on the tongues of second-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his team heading into the 2011 season.
After the rest of the college football world left them for dead, bludgeoned by Navy and mocked by Tulsa, a vengeful defense and stout running game resurrected Notre Dame to four straight victories including two over arch-rivals Southern Cal and Miami.
Now that they showed they can beat the big names, Irish eyes have turned toward a return to a BCS bowl game, and with 19 returning starters those expectations are not unfounded. But should the Irish fall short of a BCS game this year, would the 2011 season be considered a failure?
Kelly and his players would likely answer in the affirmative, as well they should. However, as analyzed in a previous article, the second season is a tough one to judge as its surface results can be deceptive.
Exhibits A and B: Charlie Weis and Bob Davie, two Notre Dame head coaches associated with long-term failure, both produced exciting second seasons, with only two losses each during their respective regular seasons. Yet the chinks in their teams' armor were showing as they both escaped with wins against multiple mediocre opponents.
How will the Irish finish the 2011 regular season?
For the 2011 Irish, it appears the talent is in place to make an easy run at a BCS bowl, especially against a schedule that has only two teams, Michigan State and Jim Harbaugh-less Stanford, with a preseason ranking.
However, lack of depth at key positions, especially running back, wide receiver and cornerback, mean that many things, including a complete absence of injuries, would have to fall in favor of the Irish to make a BCS appearance realistic.
Additionally, while the schedule is not loaded with ranked opponents, it is filled with trap games including the likes of Southern Cal and Michigan, either of which could have a season somewhere on the spectrum from miserable to miraculous. For a Notre Dame team still learning how to win week in and week out, it's likely there will be at least one or two "slip up" losses.
So if not a BCS game, what will make this season successful, or at least not an unequivocal failure? Here are a few important criteria:
- Notre Dame should not lose by more than 10 points in any game this season. If the team is to become championship caliber in 2012 and beyond, it needs to realize that any loss is embarrassing and catching the business end of a blowout is simply unacceptable.
- They should beat at least four teams on their schedule by 21 points or more. The roster is loaded with enough talent that even mildly competent coaching should have no trouble coasting to the horn against several opponents this year. This should translate into an improvement from the 2010 season point differential of plus-64 into plus-80 or plus-100 range.
- The defense must retain its dominant form from the last four games in 2010; this should be one of the nation's top 20 defenses.
- Notre Dame should finish no worse than 8-4 and win their bowl game. Even with injuries, this is the minimum.
"BCS" are the letters that make Irish fans' hearts flutter, but if these other items fall into place, there will be much bigger things on the horizon in very short order. The second season may not be the definitive barometer for where Kelly's career will end, but it will give some big hints as to its direction.