Notre Dame is a contender. Not a major bowl contender. Not a contender for feel-good story of the year as it was in 2005 and 2002. But a bona fide national championship contender: one of four, with four games to go and six weeks of land mines for the Irish, Crimson Tide, Wildcats, and Ducks to navigate along the way.
The morning of October 28, 2012 brought a stark reality to the ever-growing legion of doubters: Notre Dame can beat, and has beaten, anything college football nation offers.
It might not. USC could end hopes of a perfect slate on the season's last day for the fifth time in less than 50 years. Next week's foe Pittsburgh could play the role of spoiler formerly occupied by Boston College in both of the last two decades.
And its not impossible Boston College could rise up one week later, or that Wake Forest could take advantage of Senior Day's near-annual sluggishness and steal a stunner late.
But for the next month, Notre Dame and three other college football standouts will Duke it out -- against, unfortunately, everyone but each other -- for the right to play for the penultimate BCS crown.
(My kingdom for a time machine toward 2014).
All is right in Irish Nation on Sunday, October 28. Or as one friend of mine -- married in 2001 with three children in tow -- mused: "This is the happiest I've been in like 15 years." (I think he was speaking from a sports-centric point of view, but then again, who cares?)
Notre Dame football is appointment television again for a long-disgruntled fan base that bristled at 18 seasons of maddening inconsistency.
Win or lose vs. the rest, Notre Dame is playing championship football for the first time since 1993.
And its not because Notre Dame won the season's biggest football game last night.
Five Minutes…and CountingOne of Brian Kelly's first sound bytes as Irish head coach spoke to an accepted truth of modern college football. "We don't get a five-year plan," Kelly said in December 2009. "This is a five-minute plan … we expect our football players to play at a high level immediately."
That predictably did not happen. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears there's no way it could have:
'The 'five-minute plan' was to work on winning and the elements of winning," said Kelly last week. "Winning is defined by everybody by wins and losses, and I understand that…when does it start to translate into wins on the football field? And I think it starts to translate once it's clear across the board what it takes to win. And you can't do it until you stop losing."
"So any of the things that go contrary to working on winning have to be eradicated before you can do it on a consistent basis."
Allow me to speak for legions of Irish fans anywhere between six decades older and three decades younger than me: "There were apparently a ton of things to eradicate."
16 seasons of intermittently bad football prior to Kelly's arrival, to start with. Combine that with the lingering malaise of the final three seasons of the Charlie Weis era and the obvious need for an upgrade on both sides of scrimmage (Notre Dame had produced the two worst and fourth worst rushing seasons in program history, respectively, preceding Kelly's arrival), and it was clear the new man in charge needed to provide more than catch slogans and a soft, pass-happy attack.
"We're getting to that point where we don't do many things that cause losing," Kelly continued. "So that process is-- we're right in the middle of that. We have a ways to go, but we're making progress towards that goal."
Key to Kelly's progress is that its nowhere near finished. It will never be. If Notre Dame wins out and beats Alabama for the national title, the process will continue into 2013, but also start anew. If they lose to Pittsburgh, ditto.
Notre Dame is going to win football games on the strength of its defense and whatever its offensive strength might be for the foreseeable future.
"The (current) focus will continue and each and every year will be on the defense, first and foremost, and then it will be about players, not plays, on the offensive side of the ball," Kelly said at the end of last week's practice sessions.
"We'll continue to recruit guys that can play fast tempo and play in a spread. But we're also going to recruit guys that can run the football if we need to 50 times a game. The offense will revolve around the strengths of the personnel that we have, but the defensive philosophy, that won't change."
What will change is Notre Dame contending on an annual basis. That doesn't meant they'll start 6-0 or 8-0 every season. After all, Lou Holtz did so just three times in 11 years; Ara Parseghian only four in 11 others. It means they're going to be capable of such -- and for the first time since Holtz last did so in 1993, and an unlikely end season field goal kicked by Boston College sent the Irish football program plummeting to earth for the better part of 18 seasons.
Kelly will likely, in the words of fans, "blow a game" by the time we reconvene next year at this time. Quarterback Everett Golson will probably suffer through a terrible outing that produces defeat -- Tony Rice did. Brady Quinn did as well.
Manti Te'o might, for once, not have his defense operating at a fever pitch; Tyler Eifert might mishandle a crucial, catchable ball. The defensive line might even get blocked (stranger things have happened).
And Notre Dame fans will wake up disappointed, no matter how stacked future teams may be, no matter how sound the coaching staff may seem, unblemished records are rare when you face 13 straight teams with a pulse over four months.
What matters most is the process, Kelly's program-building plan, is in place.
And its in constant, forward motion.
"It's just the way we play," said Kelly amid a post-game celebration last night.
Yes, it is.