Notre Dame football is one of the most recognizable and storied brands in North American sports. But it has been a while since the brand of football played by the Fighting Irish lived up to the brand name of Rockne, Leahy, and Parseghian, Touchdown Jesus, Rudy, and Rocket Ismail.
Always influential off the field, Notre Dame has been part of the college football hoi polloi on the field for too long, spinning its well-heeled wheels and spouting its history — 11 national championship (but none since the 1988 season), seven Heisman Trophy winners (but none since 1987), and one melodious fight song — while leaving the national title chase to the Alabamas, LSUs, Oregons, Floridas, and Southern Cals. Over the previous five seasons, Notre Dame was a pedestrian 32-31.
That’s why it was refreshing that when Notre Dame took the field at Alumni Stadium Saturday night against Boston College, it was relevant on the current college football landscape for some reason other than its golden helmets, gilded past, and lucrative television contract. The Fighting Irish, under Chelsea-bred coach Brian Kelly, now in his third year, arrived at The Heights as honest-to-goodness national championship chasers, sporting a 9-0 record for the first time since 1993.
Welcome back, Sons of South Bend.
College football might not need you as much as you and your fans think, but it has missed you. Despite its supercilious superiority complex, Notre Dame being good is good for college football. The same is true of Alabama, USC, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Texas, by the way.
It feels like a natural order has been restored, the same way revivals of the Celtics and Green Bay Packers resonate on a deeper level than championships won by the Miami Heat or Indianapolis Colts.
Notre Dame football inspires a lot of emotions, but apathy and indifference are not among them. The Irish are revered and reviled in equal measure. They’re a touchstone of tension, providing elation and pride in their legions of alumni, both subway and actual, and perdition and scorn to those who despise their holier-than-thou patina. The Golden Domers still barely deign to acknowledge Boston College as a true rival.
No one is going to confuse this year’s Irish team with the juggernaut squads of the past. Even though Notre Dame has victories over four Top 25 opponents this season and was facing a BC team scuffling through a season Bobby Valentine couldn’t bear, there was a sense that fourth-ranked Notre Dame could be ripe for an upset.
The Irish did reach 9-0 Aerosmith style — Livin’ on the Edge.
Kelly’s squad survived near-death experiences at Notre Dame Stadium against Stanford and last week against Pittsburgh, either of which could have knocked them out of title contention. The luck of the Irish had been in effect to get to 9-0, but that just added to Notre Dame’s lore and allure in its 125th season.
The Stanford game featured a controversial ending when it appeared on replay that Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor had reached the end zone on fourth and goal in overtime. However, it was ruled a game-ending stop for the Irish.
Notre Dame rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to down Pittsburgh, 29-26, in triple overtime. But not before Pittsburgh missed a 33-yard field goal in the second overtime that would have ended the game and Notre Dame’s national title aspirations.
Despite averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game, quarterback Everett Golson and running backs Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson III don’t conjure up comparisons to Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden, otherwise known as the famed Four Horsemen. They don’t even evoke the Tony Rice-led Irish team that won the school’s last national title in 1988, averaging nearly 33 points per game.
The St. John’s Prep-educated Kelly has a reputation as an offensive guru, but it is the Notre Dame defense that had woken up the echoes of past glory and shaken down the thunder, along with opponents, this season. These guys put the “D” in ND.
Led by ball-seeking missile middle linebacker Manti Te’o and dominant defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish entered Saturday night with a defense that operated in denial more than Karl Rove.
Through nine games, Notre Dame’s defense ranked second in the country in scoring defense (11.67 points per game), trailing only Alabama, which Nick Saban has turned into the NFL’s unofficial 33d franchise.
Notre Dame had allowed eight offensive touchdowns all year and an FBS-best two rushing scores.
It’s quite possible Kelly’s team is the antithesis of what Notre Dame has been. Perpetually overrated in recruiting rankings and preseason polls, the Irish might be underrated this season.
They dropped to No. 4 this week in the all-important Bowl Championship Series standings, which are about as easy to figure out as calculating LIBOR interest rates.
It was universally understood entering Saturday night’s tilt with BC that even the school’s 13th undefeated and untied season wouldn’t be enough on its own merits to ensure Notre Dame plays for a national title. It needed help. And it got some earlier in the day when Alabama lost to Texas A&M.
But if Oregon or Kansas State finish unblemished, both would likely go to the championship game over the Irish.
Still, after a series of false starts, false résumés, and broken promises under coaches Bob Davie, George O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham, and former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, (whatever happened to the decided schematic advantage he promised?), Notre Dame is back where it belongs under Kelly, who after 35 games had the same record (25-10) as Lou Holtz.
Love it or hate it, Notre Dame’s renaissance fare has served up chicken soup for the college football soul.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.