I Know it When I See it

In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined obscenity by saying, "I know it when I see it." Justice Stewart, of course, was trying to define what crossed the line in the world of Larry Flint, but I think his maxim might apply to spotting a legitimate national championship contender as well.

Following Notre Dame's dramatic win over Michigan State, the media and many ND fans alike trumpeted the idea that ND would easily win its next seven games, and it wouldn't be until the Irish headed out to the left coast for a Thanksgiving weekend tilt with USC that the world would find out how good Notre Dame was. Ignoring the silliness of assuming easy victories over a good UCLA team, an explosive Navy team built run the ball right at ND's linebackers, and an Air Force squad that almost beat UT in Neyland Stadium, the notion that people won't know how good ND is until they play USC is misguided as well.

I fancy myself an objective, reasonable person at times – at least when the Zoloft is working – but sometimes the best way to judge a football team is to go with what your gut tells you, just like Stephen Colbert's faux-conservative host does on The Colbert Report. Football is a game of numbers and X's and O's – it is inherently objective and mathematical. But when it comes to knowing if your team is "for real," sometimes you just have to throw the numbers out the window and realize that, like Justice Stewart, you will know it when you see it.

I would submit that, at some point during the season, anyone who follows a great team can simply tell that that team is going to win. Great teams come in all types – Ohio State's 2002 national champion seemed to pull games out of its you-know-what with astounding frequency, even against opponents like Cincinnati that it should have rolled over. But by the time, late in the season, that they faced a third and long against Wisconsin, with the Badger Stadium crowd going berserk and the Buckeyes needing a touchdown to win, I just had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that they were going to make a miracle play.

Sure enough, Michael Jenkins caught a deep bomb over two defenders to set up the game winning TD. Other great teams, like USC's 2002 team, lost games early in an ugly fashion, but by some point late in the season, began to look like a machine that could dismantle every team in its path. I vividly remember bold predictions by Notre Dame fans heading into that game that relied on USC's ugly loss to Kansas State to project Irish dominance. I hoped they were right. But I had watched Carson Palmer dismantle the last five defenses he played, and secretly I was afraid I knew it when I saw it, and "it" was a formidable team capable of shredding Kent Bear's previously stout defense.

If you're still reading at this point, you might be wondering what on earth any of this has to do with Notre Dame. I think the point is this: even as ND fans have played through scenarios that could get a one-loss Irish team into the national championship game, we're all still really wondering if this will be able to pass the "know it when I see it" test. I would argue that it hasn't yet, but that doesn't mean it won't.

Last season, Notre Dame's defense may have been a sieve, but starting with the second half of the MSU game, you simply knew ND was going to convert that third down. When third down conversions failed – and they did, with some frequency still – it simply felt like a minor hitch, not a derailment. It was easy to be confident that ND would come back and convert on the next drive. Can that feeling really be quantified? Maybe not, and it's the fact that it hasn't quite felt that was this season, even when ND was solidly beating Purdue and Stanford, that seems to have some Irish fans uneasy.

After the Stanford game, there were ND fans debating whether or not it was a good performance by the Irish or simply a workmanlike game against one of the worst teams in division I-A. Watching the game, I couldn't help but get the feeling at times that this ND team wasn't really any better than it had been in previous weeks, it was just playing a team that was very, very bad – albeit a team with some talent at spots.

There are likely ways to analyze this objectively: the fact that Victor Abiamiri becomes a sack machine against Stanford, for example, is aided by their insistence upon trying to block him with a backup tight end alone (this happened twice last week). Or the fact that Ryan Harris was basically able to pick up two Stanford defenders and drive them downfield like pee-wee football players on Darius Walker's longest touchdown run. But since my coaching experience falls just short of Charlie Weis's (two years at the helm of the Breen-Phillips Babes of the ND women's inter-hall football league, to be precise), I'm not able to analyze objectively exactly why ND looked so much better against Stanford than against earlier foes. What I do know is that the team that played Stanford wasn't a great Notre Dame team – at least not yet.

Am I saying we should give up hope of this team winning a BCS game? Not at all. The reason is that the precedent is there for ND, over the course of Charlie Weis's "second season," to become a team that we all can watch and agree is a heck of a football team, simply because we know it when we see it. Loathe as I am to compare us to the enemy, that precedent is the 2002 USC team mentioned above. After I got over the feeling of filth it gave me, I was eventually able to wade through USC's official website to look at what happened with that USC team, Pete Carroll's second Trojan squad. Like ND's 2006 team, that team won its opener against a tough defense in a workmanlike fashion. It also had two stud receivers in Kerry Colbert and Mike Williams, and an obviously talented QB in Carson Palmer who had begun to show great improvement under new coaching. That team was 2-0 after edging Auburn in the opener and whipping Colorado 40-3.

In its third game, that team suffered a shocking beat down at Kansas State, a game after which no one would ever have said "this team is going to be very good." Carson Palmer completed just 18-of-47 passes in a miserable performance. Against good defenses, the Trojans couldn't run the ball at all. Does this script sound familiar to anyone? After yet another loss, this one in OT to WSU, that team began to kick into high gear, as anyone watching its games could see. Over the last six contests, Palmer entered "the zone," Carroll's defense got healthy, and Justin Fargas started running through defenses afraid of being torched by Palmer, Colbert and Mike Williams. By the end of the season, that QB who performed so miserably at KSU was toting a Heisman Trophy after completing seemingly every pass against Notre Dame in the Coliseum.

This ND team may not have Pete Carroll coaching its defense. But it does have Charlie Weis, a lot of talented players who are holding out hope that this season can be something special, and a perfectly-placed bye week to recharge its batteries and realize that even the national championship might still be within reach. Weis hinted after the Stanford game that he wasn't entirely pleased, but he saw signs of this team becoming good. He noted, for one, that Quinn was a couple passes away from a "monster game." I think there were signs as well. On the first drive of the game, I noticed that something simply looked different than previous games. The team looked assertive, sharp and aggressive. The offensive line looked like it wanted to pound the other team, not just perform its assignments. Quinn threw the ball with confidence.

The same thing happened on the first drive of the second half. On those two drives, this ND team passed the look test. Can it start to sustain that level of play on a consistent basis? UCLA's tough defense and relatively talented offense will provide the perfect opportunity for Irish fans to see whether this team can take its game to the next level. Can Brady Quinn pull a Carson Palmer and start picking apart defenses with complete confidence? Can Walker and maybe even James Aldridge start running over good defenses? Will Tom Zbikowski, Ambrose Wooden, and Travis Thomas – who are legitimately talented players, despite what some claim – return from injuries and play each snap as if it were their last? Rhema McKnight and Jeff Samardzija are first round talents at WR – can they start to make the spectacular catches again?

If this Notre Dame team is going to become what we all hope it can be, I don't think we will have to wait until the Coliseum to find out. Just tune in this week. You'll know it when you see it.

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