Virginia Tech climbed out of an 0-2 hole to reach a BCS bowl in 2010. Why can’t Notre Dame do the same in 2011?
With the Notre Dame Fighting Irish still sporting a losing record, this may seem like a ridiculous comparison. Yet just one year ago, the Virginia Tech Hokies entered Week 4 in an identical position: On the road to recovery, but banished from the ranks of the ranked and still reeling from a pair of early losses.
Both 2010 Virginia Tech and 2011 Notre Dame began the season firmly within the AP Top 25. Unfortunately for both squads, it was all downhill from there, as preseason hype disintegrated in the wake of two crippling defeats.
In Virginia Tech’s case, those two losses came to Boise State at a neutral site and to James Madison at home.
Against Boise State, the Hokies faced a talented team in a uniquely electric environment. They grabbed the lead late in the game, only to see their opponent’s dynamic quarterback snatch a victory in the final minutes.
Eerily similar to this season’s Notre Dame vs. Michigan game, eh?
The following week, Virginia Tech faced an inferior team at home. James Madison came into Blacksburg determined to make a statement, and even though Virginia Tech outgained JMU by over 100 yards, three Hokie turnovers handed a victory to the underdog Dukes.
Hmmm, a home favorite dominating the game but losing solely because of turnovers. Conjures memories of Notre Dame vs. South Florida, no?
Though each team’s circumstances are certainly unique, the Irish found themselves in an undeniably similar position to that of the Hokies heading in to Week 3. Virginia Tech’s total margin of defeat in those first two games was eight points. Notre Dame’s was seven. At 0-2, each team just couldn’t seem to catch a break.
Then a familiar rival came to visit. For Notre Dame, it was Michigan State. For Virginia Tech, it was East Carolina.
In both cases, the home team once again controlled the flow of the game, but finally eliminated its mistakes to register a decisive and cathartic victory.
In both cases, a new, transformational element helped lead the home team to a win. For the 2010 Hokies, that element was David Wilson and Darren Evans stepping in to boost the running game when starting tailback Ryan Williams was lost for the season. For the 2011 Irish, it was freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch bursting on the scene to revive the floundering pass rush.
Looking ahead to the remainder of the schedule, both teams finally had momentum working in their favor and could expect to be favored in nearly every game for the remainder of the season. With a new weapon added to their arsenal, both the Hokies and the Irish could legitimately expect to turn their fortunes around.
Virginia Tech vindicated the oddsmakers last season, beating two ranked teams and sweeping its way the ACC Championship Game. By the time they reached that game, the Hokies were rolling. They’d racked up ten consecutive wins and re-established their self-confidence and swagger. A newly confident Virginia Tech dispatched Florida State to secure a bid to the Orange Bowl.
Like Virginia Tech in 2010, Notre Dame has opportunity laid out before it.
The rest of the schedule is eminently beatable, featuring just two teams currently ranked in the Top 25. The Irish can expect to be the favorite in each of their remaining games, with the notable exception of a season-ending trip to Palo Alto. They face their only other ranked opponent, the USC Trojans, in South Bend with a full two weeks to prepare.
Given the potential that they’ve shown so far, there is no reason that the Irish shouldn’t be in position to reel off wins in their next eight games.
Then comes the crucial matchup with Andrew Luck and his Stanford Cardinal.
The Irish have an advantage in facing Stanford at the end of their schedule. If the season plays out as expected, and Notre Dame wins every game in which it’s favored, the Irish will face Stanford riding the wave of a nine-game winning streak. The Cardinal, on the other hand, will be coming down from an emotional rivalry game against Cal and might be looking ahead to a possible appearance in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game.
Trap game, anyone?
Notre Dame will not be the better team when they face Stanford, but with momentum on their side and the Cardinal sandwiched between two of the biggest games of its season, the Irish will have a great chance to sneak in and steal a victory.
Virginia Tech’s ACC championship guaranteed them a bid to the BCS, and while a 10-2 Notre Dame team is not necessarily assured of a BCS bid, I’d be flabbergasted if an Irish team riding a ten-game winning streak wasn’t selected to a BCS bowl. For Notre Dame, the Stanford game could become a de facto conference championship.
While a rebound from 0-2 to the BCS seems to defy the laws of college football physics, Notre Dame fans can take heart in the knowledge that it's not without precedent. The Irish have the team and the schedule to make it to 10-2, as well as the prestige to turn that record into a BCS bid.
Even with just a 1-2 record, it’s clear that Notre Dame has no shortage of talent. The Irish have outgained their opponents by 77 yards per game and nearly one full yard per play. At this same point in the 2010 season, Virginia Tech had outgained their opponents as well, but by less than 50 yards per game and .85 yards per play. Based on yardage totals, the Irish are actually playing better at this point in the season than the Hokies were.
So there it is. Notre Dame’s goal is still right in front of it, the Irish need only reach out and take it.