In truth, the pre-season polls correlate much more closely with a team's performance the prior year than they do with the upcoming year. For example, Stanford, coming off its 9-win campaign of 2001, appeared in several pre-season polls for 2002 but then struggled to a 2-9 record. On the other hand, national champion Ohio State, coming off a 7-5 season, appeared (if at all) well down in the pre-season projections. Notre Dame will probably average about 20th in the 2003 pre-season polls because this is approximately where the Irish were ranked at the end of 2002.
Now, the question on the minds of most Irish fans is whether N.D. has been down too far and too long to make a serious run at the national championship in the next year or two. As usual, the long view is better for assessing these sorts of things.
As a result of scholarship limits, better recruiting information and better exposure for more teams, college teams are more evenly matched than in the past. Gone are the days where only a few schools could lock up almost all the talent on gigantic rosters. Still, however, there are probably only 25 or so schools with a realistic chance of winning the national championship in the near term. Almost certainly, the national champion in the foreseeable future will come from one of the three to five premier teams in each of the six B.C.S. conferences or Notre Dame.
So, assuming that a school is in that group (and Notre Dame is indubitably in that group) the question becomes how far down is too far down. Let's start by looking at N.D.'s 1-year, 3-year, 5-year and 10-year records.1-year: 10-3
So, while this hardly been the most glorious stretch in N.D. football history, the worst "look back" interval is 5 years and even then N.D.'s win rate is .633.
Now, let's look at some of the recent winners of the national championship and see how they appeared heading into their national championship seasons.
Ohio State (2002)1-year: 7-5
Miami (2001)1-year: 11-1
Oklahoma (2000)1-year: 7-5
Florida State (1999)1-year: 11-2
Tennessee (1998)1-year: 11-2
Michigan (1997)1-year: 8-4
Interestingly, N.D.'s current position is not much different than three of the last six winners of the national championship: Michigan, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Since 1997, the winner has averaged about 9 wins and 3 losses the prior year and all but one year the winner had two or more losses coming into the year. The three teams that have the most in common with N.D. were all coming off weaker years in terms of record than N.D.'s 10-3 mark of last year. (And, of course, the last time N.D. won the national championship it was coming off an 8-4 season and a bowl loss.)
N.D.'s 3-year record is better than Oklahoma's and Ohio State's was and essentially identical to Michigan's on the eve of its 1997 season. Even if one goes to the further horizon, the 10-year "look back", N.D. is not nearly as far down as Oklahoma was and not much separates N.D. from most of other programs. On that 10-year look, in round numbers, N.D. has been an 8-4 team. On average, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State and Tennessee were 9-3 teams, F.S.U. was an 11-2 team and Oklahoma was a 6-5 team.
Even if one widens the circle to teams that played in the B.C.S. games last year their collective records were not hugely impressive. The four teams that won B.C.S. games were Ohio State (7-5 the prior year), Georgia (8-4), U.S.C. (6-6) and Oklahoma (11-2). Of these four, only Oklahoma won its bowl game the prior year (a 10-3 yawner over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl). Georgia lost the Music City Bowl 20-16 to Boston College, U.S.C. lost the Las Vegas Bowl 10-6 to Utah and Ohio State lost the Outback Bowl 31-28 to South Carolina.
The four teams that lost B.C.S. bowls were Miami (12-0 the prior year), Washington State (10-2), Iowa (7-5) and Florida State (8-4). So, on average, the teams that played in the B.C.S. games last year had records the prior year of 8.6 wins and 3.5 losses. Only Miami was a return entrant to the group of eight that played in B.C.S. games.
So, what does this tell us about N.D.'s fortunes? One thing it makes clear is that N.D. is within striking distance. The characteristic that N.D. shares with most of these other programs is that it is a traditional power with a broad enough recruiting base that it has been able to be reasonably successful over the long haul even through difficult times. Programs like N.D., Oklahoma and Ohio State, as well as Georgia and U.S.C (two B.C.S. winners last year), can suffer through even a protracted down period and then re-emerge to major success through a coaching change.
Of course, the fact that N.D. is within striking distance doesn't mean that it will strike next year. Many things will have to happen well, not the least of which is a more effective offensive attack. But it could happen.