BCS Rankings 2011: No Notre Dame, so What's the State of the Program?

Gerard MartinCorrespondent IOctober 16, 2011

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  Head Coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on while playing the Michigan State Spartans during the second half September 17, 2011at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan State 31-13. (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)
John Gress/Getty Images

Notre Dame began the season ranked in the Top 25, but is notably absent from the initial BCS rankings. It's a disappointing development, but not worthy of great concern.

Brian Kelly's squad faceplanted to start the season, riding 10 turnovers to consecutive losses against South Florida and Michigan. The team's national title hopes were immediately dashed, and Kelly's seat began to smolder.

The sky was falling.

Yet even as the Irish repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, the underlying numbers were strong. The offense was moving the ball (when it held onto it) and the defense was consistently stout. Notre Dame outgained both of its first two opponents, rolling up over 500 yards of total offense in each game. If not for a few key plays, the Irish could have been 0-2.

Since then, Notre Dame has proven the stats true, reeling off four consecutive victories.

The Irish have learned from their mistakes. They've found consistency at quarterback in Tommy Rees, as well as complementary stars in Michael Floyd and Cierre Wood. Manti Te'o has been the dominant force he was expected to be, and freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt have stepped in to spark the defense. Notre Dame is a talented, focused, efficient football team on both sides of the ball.

Notre Dame's self-destructive start has banished it from the polls, but based solely on the last month, the Irish are playing as well as just about anybody.

To borrow a phrase from Dennis Green, the Fighting Irish are who we thought they were.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 24:  Tyler Eifert #80 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates his second half touchdown against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game on September 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Irish defeated th
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Taking a long view, the program is just fine. The two early losses were an aberration; Kelly has his team back on track. A strong recruiting class is coming together to bolster a squad that's already brimming with talent. Notre Dame won't win a national title this year, but the Irish are well-positioned for the future.

In short, Brian Kelly is the right man for the job. Everything is OK. For now.

Yet as much as I talk about the long view, the reality is that many fans and boosters don't possess the patience nor the foresight to consider anything beyond this week's opponent.

In either case, this weekend's matchup at home against USC will go a long way toward defining this season. All of the calm and positivity that's currently coursing through the Notre Dame fan base will disappear in a hurry if the Irish lay an egg against the rival Trojans.

Even more, USC is a measuring stick for the talent level of the program as a whole. While the glory days of Leinart and Bush are long gone, Southern Cal is still home to some of the most athletically gifted players in the nation. If the Irish can't keep up on Saturday, it will rightfully dampen the enthusiasm generated by Kelly's recent recruiting successes.

So I guess it's true, no matter how you look at it, the state of the program rises and falls with each week's result.

For now, it's all good. Next week, who knows?

Is it crazy? Maybe.

But that's Notre Dame.