The Irish No. 1?

I remember sitting on the temporary bleachers behind the endzone in Notre Dame Stadium late in the afternoon of November 13, 1993. Eventual Heisman winner Charlie Ward, Florida State's quarterback, scrambled to his left and threw towards the goalline.

Although I did not see the end of the play live, I knew that FSU had not scored and a remarkable 31-24 Irish win had been preserved, when the students began to flood onto the field.

I felt then that another Notre Dame national championship was in the offing. I do not wish to lament to the loss to Boston College the next week. BC was the better team for 48 minutes of that game. But in my book, ND was still a national championship caliber team and indeed should have been national champions over FSU.

Since then I've had occasional feelings like Notre Dame might be a legitimate contender. When ND started 3-0 in 1996, capped by a 27-24 win over Texas in Austin, I thought that team might have something to offer. The 8-0 start in 2002, quirky as it was, lifted my spirits.

But I haven't really had the sustained feeling, since 1993, that ND was truly one of the nation's very best teams, until I watched the Irish drive down the field to score the apparent winning touchdown against USC last year. Any ND fan can recount in vivid detail the controversial ending to that game, but what really stuck with me was that drive.

Backs against the wall, down 28-24 to the defending national champs riding a 27-game winning streak and 87 yards from paydirt: Quinn to Samardzija for 18 and then 14, to Stovall for 15, to Fasano for 6, then 3 runs by Walker netting 5, 20 and 4, and then Quinn for the TD on a 5-yard scamper. It hit me then: these guys are really good.

To be sure, the 34-20 loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State dampened my enthusiasm some, but it didn't shake my feeling that for the first time since 1993 we really had the soul of an elite team.

Of course, a skeptic might rightly ask what makes last year's ND team any different from the three-loss teams under Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham. On a purely objective basis, there are two huge differences.

One is the season point differential. ND last year outscored its opponents by a collective 146 points: 440 to 294. This reflected the reality that ND's losses were all reasonably close (a combined 20 points) and its win total was not peppered with a lot of close games that could have gone either way. The two closest wins were 17-10 over Michigan (a game ND led 17-3 until very late) and 38-31 over Stanford (a game in which ND outgained the Cardinal by about 300 yards).

The 1998, 2000 and 2002 teams had season point differentials of 80, 86 and 73 respectively. Those teams all suffered at least one loss by three or more touchdowns and generally had very good records in games that could have gone either way. But, as the losing years that followed those demonstrated, trying to hang around and win close games is not a recipe for long term success.

The second, which certainly reflects the first, is that ND finished in the AP top ten. Holtz's teams finished in the top ten 5-of-11 years, Devine's 3-of-6 and Ara's 9-of-11. Faust, Davie and Willingham: 0-for-13 between them.

Now, many ND fans have been rightly cautious about preseason projections that place the Irish in the top spot or very close to it. Indeed, the odds are against ND winning it all this year. In a season without a clear favorite going in, the odds are against any particular team winning it.

But if you want a lazy way of projecting a potential national champion, look at last year's top 10 and then look how many starters each team returns.

Here's last year's top 10 with the number of returning starters for each team in parentheses following:

1. Texas (13)

2. USC (10)

3. Penn State (9)

4. Ohio State (9)

5. West Virginia (12)

6. LSU (11)

7. Virginia Tech (10)

8. Alabama (13)

9. Notre Dame (16)

10. Georgia (9)

So when those preseason magazines are looking for someone to pick, that's what's attracting them to ND.

Now, of course, returning experience doesn't always help, but it usually does. It was somewhat predictable that ND would have a harder time on defense last year (returning three starters) than on offense (returning 10).

Will it automatically translate into a national championship run in 2006? Not necessarily. But for the first time in a long time, I have that old feeling, like the anticipation for the season is based on something other than wishful thinking. Top Stories