I am not a Notre Dame fan — never have been.
Goodness knows, as a Michigan fan, the Fighting Irish have broken my heart more times than I can count. However, I do respect what first-year Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham has been able to do this year with players he didn’t recruit. The Fighting Irish opened their season with a six-game winning streak, and with cellar dwellers Navy and Rutgers among two of their final six games down the stretch, a winning season shouldn’t be a problem.
But the Irish aren’t just fighting to get over .500, they’re fighting for a shot at the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). In the tricky BCS ranking scheme, which ultimately determines the teams that will vie for the national championship and the other top three bowl games, Notre Dame must finish the season with at least nine wins and a ranking in the top 12.
However, all nine wins have to be “non-exempt” games according to BCS rules. No. 7 Notre Dame opened its season with the Kickoff Classic, a game that is traditionally exempt and occurs in the preseason, so their first win wasn’t supposed to count towards a bowl berth.
This year, however, Notre Dame’s freshman orientation activities pushed the Kickoff Classic back to Aug. 31, which is when many schools begin their regular seasons. So the Fighting Irish took their belligerent bluster from the football field to the BCS and protested the Kickoff Classic’s exempt status. The BCS powers-that-be capitulated Oct. 2.
Now, Notre Dame needs just three more wins instead of four to qualify for BCS consideration.
With all the great things going on in college football this season — Miami’s winning streak, Iowa State quarterback Senecca Wallace’s performance, the six-overtime thriller between Tennessee and Arkansas — those last four paragraphs constituted the story of the week. I don’t know about you, but a protested win from the Fighting Irish just doesn’t have the same entertainment value as a 50-yard touchdown pass or a never-ending game between two conference rivals. More than anything else, last week’s headline news spoke volumes about Notre Dame’s skewed influence on the BCS and college football in general.
Think back just a moment to the last time Notre Dame actually qualified for the BCS — just two years ago. Noting Notre Dame’s previous subpar years, ABC analyst Terry Bowden said it was “great for college football” to have the Fighting Irish back in BCS contention (translation: because Notre Dame, college football’s most popular team, was a part of ABC’s college football package, ABC could expect some extra revenue come New Year’s).
What was good for Notre Dame was not good for college football. Michael Vick’s 10-1 Virginia Tech team steam-rolled Clemson in the Gator Bowl, while Oregon State pounded 9-2 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, 41-9.
In that game, Notre Dame: (1) posted less total offense yardage than Oregon State did on penalty yardage; (2) mustered one touchdown with a backup quarterback in garbage time; and (3) missed the subsequent 2-point conversion that would have cut the deficit to 30. But, Notre Dame (4) filled the stadium to a sellout, (5) generated outstanding television ratings, and (6) collected more than $10 million just for showing up. In short, it was an embarrassment — for college football, Notre Dame, and the BCS.
As an avid college football fan, I made the mistake of expecting my New Year’s Day match-ups to be great games. With Notre Dame two years ago, I was disappointed. A team like the Fighting Irish shouldn’t be able to overshadow another team that has had a better season but has less sex appeal on a national level. The system is skewed. Some even equate the Irish to a certain major league baseball team in pinstripes, for better or worse.
Ultimately, a team’s success is contingent on its win-loss record, but when one team attains significant advantages (through television and radio revenues, media exposure, recruiting, and even NCAA and BCS rule-bending) before the regular season even starts, the system is not equitable.
This Saturday, Notre Dame will take a little trip west to visit No. 18 Air Force, where the high-flying Fighting Falcons are making some noise of their own. On paper, it’s a mismatch. On paper, there are probably not three Air Force players who could suit up for the Irish. On paper, Notre Dame has better recruits, more money, and more television and radio exposure. Thank goodness they don’t play the game on paper.
No one plays harder, smarter, and with more heart than the Air Force Academy (or at least that’s the bias of this Colorado Springs native). And, let me remind you that no one, and I mean NO ONE, wants to come into Colorado Springs and play in the cold of night at 7,000 feet. Can you say oxygen debt?
For the sake of college football, I hope the Fighting Falcons can spring the upset this weekend and help remind us that even when the deck is already stacked in advance — through media exposure, coins in the coffers, and even unwarranted breaks from governing bodies — champions are still crowned on the field.