Although many who are not fans of the Blue and Gold would argue, Notre Dame's preseason ranking of 16th by the AP was right on the money. The Irish finished with a 8-5 record last season, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Dayne Crist, Notre Dame's starting quarterback, was knocked out for the season with his second knee injury in as many years. Crist's play before the injury wasn't stellar, but with no definitive rotation behind him, people figured the offense would be in shambles.
As the season progressed and a freshman took the helm at quarterback, the defensive unit buckled down, and it led the team to four straight victories to end 2010-2011.
Now, with Crist back (although some debate he will be the starter because of Tommy Rees' 4-0 record; I don't), the Irish will look to move up the rankings board, but why is starting the season in the Top 25 so important? And why would people say having high expectations are a bad thing for the Irish?
It never fails to be mentioned when talking about Notre Dame's recent history just how poorly they have done in bowl games. In the past 10 years, the Irish have gone 2-4.
The most disappointing losses came in two BCS bowl games.
In 2006, the Irish lost to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl 34-20.The next year, Notre Dame was blown out 41-10 by LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
Unfortunately, these bowls are cited as evidence when saying Notre Dame can't win the big games, or that they can't handle the pressure of expectations. But the losses show nothing more than those teams were not good enough to win.
Notre Dame has won their last two bowl games against Hawaii and Miami, although that hasn't done much to quiet their critics. To do that, the Irish would probably have to win a BCS game.
For those who think Notre Dame won't live up to their expectations this year because of the lack of success they have had after Lou Holtz's departure (although, like every team, they have had their ups and downs), they will be in for a big surprise.
At the 16th spot in the AP Top 25, the Irish are ranked ahead of rivals Michigan and USC.
Michigan, which missed out on being ranked in the Top 25, and USC, at 25th, will be looking to knock Notre Dame out of the rankings when given their chances (granted the Irish are still in the Top 25).
While the games will be tough, neither USC nor Michigan need added motivation when playing the Irish. Both would want the win whether Notre Dame was ranked first or last in the FBS.
And when a team does have a metaphoric target on their back, it's for a reason—because they're good. The Irish will have to get through a difficult schedule, but being ranked 16th will not make it any harder.
Notre Dame won't be coming out of nowhere to upset teams this year, but let's be honest, being an underdog is overrated.
When a team is ranked in the Top 25 to start the season, they are always in a better position than a team who's not. If a team's strength of schedule is tops in the FBS, there is a chance that they will be able to jump some squads, but for the most part, they have to wait for those in front of them to lose. Upward mobility is not an easy task in the FBS.
Being at the 16th spot, Notre Dame won't have to move up too far to be BCS-bowl eligible, which is a benefit of being in the Top 25.
The Irish play Michigan State, who's ranked one spot behind them at No. 17, for their third game of the season. If the Irish can manage to beat Michigan State, they will crack the Top 10 (a number of teams in the Top 10 play each other in the first three weeks including LSU at Oregon and Oklahoma at Florida State), but if the Irish were unranked going into the game, they would likely be trying to squeeze into the Top 25.
Because of how difficult it is to climb up the polls, the Irish and their fans should be ecstatic that they're starting the season ranked 16th.
Regardless of how high the Irish are ranked, they still have to win the games on the schedule. Rankings are meaningless if a team loses. It takes a long time to rise in the polls, but it can take just one game to fall out of them.
So have teams with low expectations at Notre Dame done better than those who had high ones?
Tyrone Willingham, who came into his first season with an unranked team, took them all the way to fourth in the country. But Willingham's team was beaten badly in the last two games of the season and finished 17th.
His next year, Notre Dame started the season ranked 19th, but they got beaten by Michigan in their second game and never regained a Top 25 rank again.
On the other hand, Notre Dame's last championship team in 1988 had high expectations and exceeded them. The team started at 13th in the country and finished No. 1 after beating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.
My point with the arbitrarily picked seasons is simple: It just depends. Sometimes teams fail to meet expectations, and sometimes they rise to them. Teams never know how a season is going to turn out until the games are actually played. Expectations can overwhelm or they can motivate; it is all about how the coach and his players handle them.
This is a different Notre Dame team than Irish squads in the recent past.
The guy in charge, Brian Kelly, is a proven winner at the college level, and in his second season, that will show. In Kelly's first year, he had yet to truly implement his spread offense; it will look much better and more complex in 2011-2012.
Also, Notre Dame's roster is as deep as it has been in some time. There are only two spots on the whole team that are thin.
At running back, Cierre Wood will start with Jonas Gray backing him up; behind them are two freshman vying for the third spot. At cornerback, there is little experience behind Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, but Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson could be solid backups. Other than those two positions, the whole roster is loaded, and even cornerback and running back potentially have depth if guys step up.
Notre Dame is as ready as ever to live up to the expectations put on them, and they should capitalize on their No. 16 ranking this season.