Everything But The "W"

Notre Dame didn't win over all Saturday night -- but with its performance on football's biggest regular season stage, it might have earned something much more difficult to attain.

Sunday morning Oct. 19 brought rare commonality among Notre Dame fans, a group usually predisposed to disparate views of following an Irish football Saturday.

The wake of a 31-27 defeat in Tallahassee elicited visceral reactions, ranging from disappointment, to frustration, to resentment -- the opportunity lost weighed heavily.

Notre Dame went toe-to-toe with the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles. They out-gained a team that has won 23 consecutive contests by nearly 150 yards on its home turf. They out-rushed them by more than 100. They led or tied for more than 52 of the game's 60 pulse-pounding minutes, and, for a fleeting moment, had done enough to win.

The victory, ephemeral as it was exhilarating, was short-lived.

A penalty flag took back Notre Dame's would-be game-winner. It took somewhere between two weeks and two months of ensuing celebrations with it.

It didn't, however, take away the harsh reality the rest of the college football world will be forced to deal with for, at minimum, the next 15 months:

Notre Dame is back among the elite. They can beat anyone in college football 2014 and will be equipped to do the same next fall. More so.

Today, Sunday Oct. 19, the Irish rank among the six, or seven, or eight best teams in America. And it doesn't appear the top dog is markedly better than the eighth, or perhaps ninth or tenth from that subset. Whomever is No. 1, they're not a tier above Notre Dame.

Long Time Coming

More than five incoming classes of South Bend freshmen have cheered for a program either mired in mediocrity or on the outside looking in for the duration of their stays under the Dome. The current crop, fueled by ahead-of-schedule underclassmen and a top tier program-building head coach, is instead on the cusp.

For a moment Saturday night, it appeared perched atop the college football world.

"I don't know exactly if I can give you a word to describe the feeling," said Joe Schmidt, the usually garrulous senior linebacker who struggled for fitting phrases post-game. "This is a very tough loss. Florida State is a great team. I think they played a great game today. I think we played very well, we just have to do a little bit more."

It was the team's mantra -- "We needed to make one more play" -- following a victory quest hat came up one play short, courtesy a pass-interference call on someone, be it C.J. Prosise or Will Fuller. Both appeared to technically interfere or intentionally impeded the progress of Seminoles defensive backs on Notre Dame's penultimate play, a 2-yard touchdown throw to a wide open Corey Robinson.

It appeared neither had to do so -- Robinson won off the line and no Florida State defender was likely to stop him from crossing the goal for the third time Saturday night, this time on a perfectly placed out-route from quarterback Everett Golson.

Yellow flags make the above observation moot. Notre Dame lost. It won't be ranked among the nation's top four in any of the myriad irrelevant polls that dot the changing football landscape tonight or tomorrow.

It might when the newly-formed Selection Committee gathers for its final evaluation of an arduous journey at season's end.

If deemed worth, it's going to be a difficult team to beat in the first-ever FBS playoffs. To do so, an opponent will have to kill them, and not in the "42-14 Take That" manner in which all-timer Alabama previously punished the program with championship impunity.

No, to kill this squad you need a great player that plays great when it matters most. That was Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston Saturday night in the second half. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is less controversial than he is merely vilified these days.

But Winston's on-field excellence cannot be denied.

Nor, realistically, can Notre Dame's ascent. They're among the nation's best teams and programs at present. If they earn a shot at playing for the game's biggest prize, they'll play well enough to again elicit a surge of pride from their desperate fan base, just as they did last night.

They're not perfect or close to it, but they're far better than expected. As good as anyone out there, it would appear.

They played like champions against champions in a game that could go down as the best, most competitive, and most compelling college football contest of the 2014 season.

"They're the defending champions. They all have rings for a reason," said Schmidt of the Winston-fueled Seminoles. "They know how to play."

So too do the Irish. On that Irish fans should finally, universally agree.

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