Updated: September 27, 2012 11:33AM
You’ve heard the details before, rattled off ad nauseum by frustrated fans stewing in angst and gleeful rivals basking in schadenfreude alike.
No national titles since 1988. No Heisman winners since 1987. No more than eight wins over the last five years. Two lower-tier bowl wins in 18 years.
Nationally prominent? No, Notre Dame is not nationally prominent. Hasn’t been for some time now.
Nationally relevant? Yes, Notre Dame is nationally relevant. The NBC contract, the seat at the BCS table, the barnstorming sellouts, the never-ending independence debate — all those things everybody hates about Notre Dame — are proof of that.
Like it or not, the Irish are part of the college football conversation in this country, whether they deserve to be or not — like the Red Sox in baseball, like the Cowboys in the NFL. And this year, because of one of the more intriguing — and difficult — schedules in the nation, Notre Dame’s going to get talked about even more.
There’s the opener in Ireland, making what would normally be another shoulder-shrugger against Navy seem interesting. There’s the game against Miami in Soldier Field, bringing the Irish front-and-center to the nearest major media market (in garish helmets that will raise eyebrows even in Oregon). Then there are the four top-20 opponents, three on the road, including games at national title contenders Oklahoma and USC in the final month of the season.
Don’t like hearing about Notre Dame? Better unplug your TV and stay off the Internet until basketball season.
Now, it falls on the Irish themselves to steer that conversation. On paper, this is an 8-4 season, at best. Michigan State, Michigan, Oklahoma and USC will all be favored, and should all be favored. And if it’s another 8-4 season, it’ll be another who-cares bowl game and another offseason of hand-wringing — wondering if Brian Kelly is the right guy, if maybe Gunner Kiel should get a crack at quarterback — and another fall of suffering the slings and barbs that come with being a mediocre megapower.
But steal a win or two in the big four and hold serve on the others, and suddenly Notre Dame is back in the national conversation for all the right reasons.
That’s all it takes.
It won’t be easy. Heck, it won’t be easy to even get the other eight wins. Not with a completely untested quarterback. Not with two novice cornerbacks, with only more novices behind them. Not without an Army or an Air Force or a Nevada or a Western Michigan on the schedule.
No doubt, this is a team with at worst some glaring holes, at best some huge question marks. At terribly important positions, no less. But it’s also a team with a strong front seven on defense, led by maybe the best linebacker in the nation, Manti Te’o. It’s also a team with an experienced front five on offense. There’s a talented stable of tailbacks, an All-America tight end in Tyler Eifert, some talented returning receivers and some tantalizing freshmen who could contribute right away.
A great team? Probably not. A good team? Probably. A team worthy of its standing in the national discourse?
Well, that’s up to the Irish themselves. It’s a high-risk, high-reward schedule, one that sets the Irish up for ruin or revelation — or a continued existence in the cruel nether-region in between.
There’s no telling how this season will play out for the Irish. But win, lose or draw, it’s safe to assume one thing: You’ll hear about it.
At least this year, Notre Dame is making the conversation interesting.