But Notre Dame's current seven-game winning streak has slowly but surely moved them up the BCS rankings. Head coach Charlie Weis has used a tactic with his players that fans of college football have been screaming for years.
"It's the second round of the playoffs," Weis said at his Tuesday press conference. "If I can't get a guy ready for a playoff game, I must be doing something wrong. I should be judged accordingly."
The first round of the "playoffs" started last week. The Irish's 39-17 victory on the road over Air Force advanced Notre Dame to round two. That will come this week when the Irish welcome in the Black Knights to South Bend. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:43 p.m. and NBC will have the national television coverage. The current No. 5 ranking in the BCS came about because of losses this past week to Louisville, Texas, Auburn and California, catapulting Notre Dame four spots.
Now, the politicking begins. Currently, there are eight one-loss teams in the top-25 to go along with the four undefeated squads. How's come Notre Dame is ahead of Arkansas? Why hasn't Florida dropped after playing uninspired football the past month? Is Rutgers being held down on namesake alone? A lot of questions but few answers in the college football picture, which is blurry because of the absence of a playoff system.
Over the next few weeks, it will become clearer. This weekend, No. 1 Ohio State plays No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 USC hosts No. 15 California. In two weeks, Notre Dame travels to battle the Trojans while No. 6 Arkansas plays No. 11 LSU. Throw in the SEC Championship contest and there's still a lot to be played out.
"Everyone will make their case," Weis said. "There isn't one team out there who believes they aren't the team. That's the way they think. This weekend, there will be another team out there with one loss and they'll be making their case, too. There are a bunch of teams out there making their case. It's important for our team to go out there and play our best game against Army. That's all we can do. We can't control all the factors. That's all we can do."
All these factors go hand and hand with the emotional roller coaster for Notre Dame senior players and parents. This week will be the last home contest for these individuals. They've had two head coaches, a Gator and Fiesta Bowl defeat, losing seasons and the apparent rebirth of Irish football under Weis. Now, in their final go-around, the team sits at 9-1 with an outside chance to play for a national championship. How will this group be remembered? Weis thinks the final two games, including the bowl contest, will tell a lot.
"I think their legacy will be determined in the next three weeks," Weis said about the senior class. "You are always remembered by how it ended. That's how you're remembered."
The first roadblock to possible history making is this Saturday. Army stands at just 3-7 on the season and losers of four in row, all by 14 points or more. Head coach Bobby Ross's team is 111th in rushing defense (smile Darius Walker) and 109th in total offense (smile Irish defenders). The Black Knights have beaten Notre Dame since 1958. Everyone knows that in two weeks, the Irish have a road trip to Los Angeles to face heated rival USC. Some might look ahead to the titanic game. But Weis believes that the impetus of Senior Week will override those concerns.
"On the surface, it would be," Weis said about a trap game. "But I only answer that with a similar rhetorical question. You are going to play for the last time at your home stadium in front of your home fans and students that you've been buddies with that past four years. How could you want to play anything but your best? It's rhetorical but that should be. And we're playing Army. When you're playing a service academy, you're always going to get their best. You are never going to get anything but their best."
Weis already has the schedule in place for the weekend to avoid the various conflicting issues of Senior Week."The first thing we'll do is that every fourth or fifth-year senior will go the hotel room regardless if they've played one down," Weis said. "It's something special to be a part of. Not everyone goes to the hotel room the night before the game. We got extra hotel rooms and of course the parents have been invited to the pep rally the night before. We've gotten a response from everyone and close to everyone will be there.
I liked the way they did it before I got here in bringing people in the night before because on game day, it gets to be a distraction. It's already emotional as is to realize this is it. It's the last home game of their career. I like that they get recognized at the pep rally."
On the injury front, tight end John Carlson hurt is knee in the win over Air Force. The senior was on a record pace this season, catching 46 balls for 621 yards and four touchdowns before going down last Saturday. In his place, fifth-year senior Marcus Freeman caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Brady Quinn and will now assume Carlson's role in the starting lineup. The prognosis on Carlson: out until the bowl game.
"I could lie and say he's day-to-day and try to throw a smoke screen out there," Weis said. "But he won't play this week or next week. He'll be at the hotel and travel with us and be ready for whatever bowl game we go to."