By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
That sound emanating from South Bend this week isn’t the echoes of past greatness waking up. It’s the knees of everyone with a stake in Notre Dame football knocking together. It’s been a long time since they had anything to be nervous about.
The 19 years between appearances at the top of the college football heap says as much about the state of the game as it does about the Irish. Notre Dame had a seat at the table alongside the major conferences a year earlier, when the postseason system was first set up by a cartel that called itself the Bowl Coalition. And because it had the best tradition in the sport and an exclusive network TV deal to boot, Notre Dame kept both its status as an independent and that seat at the table when the cartel reformulated and renamed itself the Bowl Alliance in 1995, then shed its skin one more time in 1998 and became what we know today as the Bowl Championship Series.
So you’d think the Irish might have figured out a way to game the system by now. Or at the very least, gotten in on the cash grab in the early years of the BCS, as schools from all those other conferences did at least once, before the SEC began stacking the odds and took home the last six national championships.
But that’s not the way they do things at Notre Dame. And that’s the reason for the nerves. This team doesn’t inspire confidence the way Irish teams used to; those squads were loaded and rarely more than a few players short — sometimes just a play or two short — of competing for a title every season. These days, it’s Alabama, LSU and Florida that fit that bill and Notre Dame that’s burned through a long list of coaching hires trying to find its way back. Since Lou Holtz tried to hand off the program, there’s been nothing but fumbles, from Bob Davie to George O’Leary to Tyrone Willingham to Charlie Weis.
When Brian Kelly took over in 2010, only so much changed at first. The Irish went to back-to-back bowls, but the Sun and Champs Sports Bowls hardly woke up the fan base, let alone the echoes. There were some disciplinary problems along the way, and Kelly’s almost-callous reaction when tragedy touched the program with the death of a student videographer. He berated his quarterbacks on the sideline and was told to tone it down. And even as this season began, it was still in question whether a chastened Kelly would ever be able replicate the success at Notre Dame that he had during previous stops at Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State.
Notre Dame started outside the preseason Top 25 and opened against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, still committed to a schedule that brings in plenty of bucks but isn’t smart by BCS standards. There wasn’t an FCS school on the card, or even a soft landing spot. Yet there’s only one marker left to pick up Saturday at Southern California and even there, the luck that’s carried the Irish through the season appears to be holding up. USC coach Lane Kiffin said starting quarterback Matt Barkley is a scratch and his backup, Max Wittek, has thrown exactly nine passes this season.
That should be a mismatch against Notre Dame’s No.1-in-the-nation defense, but Kelly isn’t taking any chances. He said Monday that his team will prepare for both quarterbacks, which suggests he doesn’t trust Kiffin any more than the rest of us. Or maybe he just knows better than the rest of us how tenuous Notre Dame’s foothold is. If so, he’s not letting on. Both of the teams that were in front of the Irish on the BCS dance card — Oregon and Kansas State — stumbled over the weekend and he wasn’t shy about Notre Dame being ready to step up.
“Now we don’t have to answer questions about style points or politics,” he said. “Now we have a chance to play for the national championship this week.”
A lack of political clout wasn’t what kept the Irish out of the championship mix this long, and the questions about style points seemed reasonable, since the same demands would have been made on any outlier —and after nearly two decades, that’s where Notre Dame found itself.
Right now, the Irish are a great story about a coach whose maturity has dovetailed with that of a team. On the defensive side of the ball, senior Manti Te’o has become both the physical and spiritual leader. On the other side, Kelly has handled young quarterback Everett Golson with admirable restraint, giving him just enough leeway to grow into the job week by week.
If it all holds together for just one more week, there will be plenty of time and more attention lavished on Notre Dame’s glory days than even the most committed subway alumni can endure. And if so, there will be plenty of time spent waiting for Alabama, or Georgia or Florida to emerge from the other side of the bracket and plenty of time to get used to the sound of all those knees knocking together again.