And now, step two

Friday's win, though satisfying and telling, merely completed a successful first step.

Battered, broken, and, at least when it mattered yesterday, disinterested.

That's the present day state of the football program formerly feared as, "The U."

The present day Irish, conversely, look significantly better than installments of the recent past.

Friday afternoon's humbling (relatively speaking) of the rudderless Hurricanes put a bright bow on the shocking, unforeseen finish to the 2010 Notre Dame season. And though Brian Kelly's crew will join the rest of American at 0-0 in early September 2011, the manner in which it achieved its 4-0 final push seems to suggest great days lie ahead for a program that has – in case you forgot – lost 26 of its last 50 contests.

Let the record show

Unlike college basketball, Major League Baseball; the NFL, and, well, most sports, college football offers no incentive for playing your best football at the end of the year.

There's no party to crash; no tournament for a streaking team to highlight, because that multi-elimination tourney started on September 4. Five losses blot Notre Dame's 2010 resume, at least two of them ugly. Two others could have been avoided, while another would have been despite a shaky overall effort – a win still salvageable if not for a poor decision and alarming hubris.

Notre Dame didn't beat any of the nation's best teams in their unlikely stretch run, though each opponent had either a puncher's chance or possessed athletes who'll play their best ball at the next level.

But the four game winning streak to end 2010 was the first at the school since 1992 and only the third in the last three decades. And like those other two squads that won their final four (in '92 it was seven games, in '88 it was all 12 en route to the crown) the 2010 Irish were easily at their best at season's end.

That "best" is relative, as there remain plenty of teams that would handle Notre Dame if lined up opposite next week. Yet for the first time in several seasons that number will likely shrink by next fall.

Notre Dame has a legitimate BCS defense. Aside from TCU, few have looked better in the final third of the season than Bob Diaco's group. And the offense while in its infancy has a legitimate BCS coach at the controls. I'll argue their but two steps away from the nation's top tier entering preparations for the '11 season: another playmaker on the outside – especially since this season's edition and team MVP has likely played his last collegiate game – and more consistency at the quarterback position.

Compare that to one year ago…compare that to October 31 when Tulsa awkwardly presented the Irish with a post-game trophy...for being hospitable hosts.

I'm not sure which seems further away.

If you can't beat ‘em…

Miami embraced the role of the aggressor early, tossing WR T.J. Jones into the sideline on the first snap; roughing up Michael Floyd on a play blown dead, and swarming to the football. Left tackle Zack Martin – with a shiny trophy as the game's best lineman in tow – admitted post-game the Irish were taken aback by the ‘Canes defensive aggressiveness.

But while one team adjusted and executed; the other simply kept talking, not matter how many times Michael Floyd or Cierre Wood or Robert Hughes or Tyler Eifert found open spaces for significant gains.

Miami noticeably won one battle Friday: conversation and contact after the whistle. Likely embarrassed by the public flogging, the now 7-6 Hurricanes chattered, gave ground, squawked, blew assignments, yapped, tossed a collective four interceptions, and then exacerbated the situation with 10 penalties for 106 yards. According to interim head coach Jeff Stoutman, the team's bowl practice sessions focused on alleviating such season-long failures. At least they stayed consistent.

A new sheriff will take over in Coral Gables when the Miami plane touches down. Al Golden will likely bring this once proud, now disjointed program back to respectability. Back to the role of contender.

Just two months ago a colleague and I noted walking out of a Tuesday press conference that there was "no way" the season could be considered a success.

We were wrong. It should be, it is. And Notre Dame has already taken that crucial first step in the process of building a contender, a champion. The next step – one much more difficult and 17 Irish football seasons in the making – finally appears likely. Top Stories