By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It wasn’t really Armageddon this past Saturday at Notre Dame.
It just looked like it was.
Although, beneath all those bolts of lightning crackling above South Bend, it probably felt like Armageddon too for downcast Fighting Irish fans after they watched Notre Dame fall 23-20 to South Florida in an error-plagued season opener that actually managed to make head coach Brian Kelly’s face darker than the sky.
On Wednesday, David Mayo of The Grand Rapids Press wrote about the Irish’s hot-headed leader:
Brian Kelly said he needs to be more aware of the fishbowl in which he lives as Notre Dame football coach.
He didn’t say he was sorry for an expletive-filled tirade at a player that could peel the skin off a sailor’s tongue, all of it caught by NBC cameras. He didn’t promise never again to curse a Fighting Irish player for lax execution, after a game when that condition ran rampant.
He had a game slipping away, at the beginning of a promising season, and there’s every reason to suspect he knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to keep a season from slipping away, too.
They say that one game doesn’t make a season. But, as Mayo pointed out in his column, at Notre Dame it actually pretty much does.
That’s because, while the beauty of college football – even with all it flaws – is that there’s no other sport in America in which one game matters more, the continuing folly of Notre Dame is that there’s no other school in America where one game matters so much.
Too much, I’d say.
With the loss to South Florida, Notre Dame’s season has already lost most of its meaning. Because, if the Fighting Irish aren’t fighting for a national title then they aren’t fighting for anything at all.
Not really, at least. Not without the Big Ten.
Last year, the Fighting Irish again declined an opportunity to join the Big Ten – and then proceeded to open the season with three games against Big Ten teams (Purdue, Michigan, at Michigan State). This summer, with realignment roulette again holding a gun to the heads of school presidents throughout the Big 12, the stubborn folk at Notre Dame are again watching from afar, and again playing those same three Big Ten teams among their first five games.
The battle against Michigan this Saturday – the first-ever under the lights at the Big House – will be exciting, no doubt. But for the 0-1 Irish, it will now have little tangible meaning with a national title out of the picture. Same goes for the Michigan State game the following week, Purdue two weeks after that and the rest of the Irish’s “nonconference” schedule.
Now, sure, Notre Dame could rebound this season and still compete for a BCS berth. That does give the Irish more to play for than in years past (including the lure of big money). But at Notre Dame, even with its struggles during the past 20 years, you’re supposed to compete for championships, not just bowl victories.
And without a conference championship to play for, all Notre Dame has to strive for each season is the national championship – which it hasn’t won since 1988, or even truly contended for since ’93.
In other words, playing just for that isn’t easy.
And once you lose a game, it’s gone.
Last October, Notre Dame willingly dropped itself off college football’s radar by facing, in consecutive weeks, such heavyweight schools as Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa. This November, the Irish play middling opponents Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College during the first three weeks of the juiciest time of the year when the nation’s eyes are focused on conference races.
Scheduling games such as those during the heat of the college football season is not the way to maintain a national powerhouse – not when you could instead be playing the likes of Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin while competing for a Big Ten crown.
I suspect that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s would say the same. Although, when recently asked about the Big Ten expanding again, he told the New York Times that he’s happy where his league is and “it’s about quality, not quantity.”
Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, however, translated that statement as: “There will always be a spot waiting for you, Notre Dame, but until then, we’re not going add teams for the heck of it.”
To which I’d say, Notre Dame shouldn’t just play seasons for the heck of it, either. The Big Ten still beckons. And some day, the school needs to wise up and finally answer the league’s call.
Because 0-1 doesn’t always have to be the loneliest number.
With the Big Ten, the Irish would still have something to fight for.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.