The 21st century is a strange time in college football.
We have a playoff, Rutgers is in the Big Ten, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are coming off major bowl bids and, as another season nears, it is possible that Notre Dame will be dealing with something that remains a foreign concept: under-hype.
Throughout college football history, and through the many attempts to claim that it has returned to glory, nobody in the sport has had a sharper divide between hype and reality than Notre Dame, the school that, historically speaking, always receives the benefit of the doubt. The Fighting Irish win arguments in polls, and they win Heisman Trophy votes, because Notre Dame has always seen itself as special, and in turn it has been treated as such by a public more adoring than not through much of the 20th century. Knute Rockne built Notre Dame into a national brand nearly a century ago, and while the power of that brand has diminished over time, Notre Dame football still has a foothold in the national consciousness unlike anyone else.
A good Notre Dame football team is good for business.
Only recently did the shine wear off, and only recently did the Notre Dame name stop earning automatic respect. It happened through several botched coaching hires in a row, and it happened through nine consecutive bowl losses over 14 seasons from 1994-07.
Nobody saw Notre Dame as special entering 2012. The Fighting Irish began the season unranked in the AP top 25, and they had not opened the season ranked in consecutive preseason polls since 1998-99. Circumstances had changed drastically. From 1965-99, Notre Dame started the season outside the AP poll only once (1986, between back-to-back 5-6 seasons). It finished outside the poll 11 of those years, but no matter what happened one year, expectations always rose again the next.
And when Notre Dame finally proved doubters wrong, subverting expectations in 2012 by riding a string of close wins to a 12-0 regular season, the façade quickly crashed down in spectacular fashion once the new year hit: Alabama beat Notre Dame, 42-14, for the national championship, and Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o's tragic story about the death of his girlfriend turned out to be a hoax. Notre Dame finished the regular season unbeaten, but little about it felt real only weeks later. It's been struggling to dig out of that hole ever since.
After the 2012 championship debacle, Notre Dame once again finds itself needing to earn back the trust of college football evaluators, set for its third attempt at turning that undefeated regular season into sustained success. First, the veteran defense departed and Everett Golson got suspended. Then Golson returned as a turnover machine and more academic suspensions and injuries wreaked havoc on the Fighting Irish's depth. A 17-9 record over the last two years isn't terrible, but it also doesn't live up to the rising expectations of the Brian Kelly era -- a hire universally seen as a home run. Now, no longer is success ever perceived as automatic, and rightfully so. While the hype kicks into high gear at any hint of power, Notre Dame, more than any time in the last 100 years, has to earn respect instead of having it automatically bestowed upon it because of what happened in the 1940s. It's still not like everyone else, but it's closer than ever before.
Over the last five years, though, Notre Dame ranks 10th in averaging recruiting class, according to 247Sports' composite rankings, and it is coming off a quiet NFL draft in which it lost almost nobody -- not because it lacked talent, but because every key player has eligibility remaining. It is OK to still be excited about the Brian Kelly era, and it is OK to believe that Notre Dame can shake off last year's second-half frustrations, parlaying a healthier, more experienced roster into a fight for a playoff bid that we thought might happen last year had offensive pass interference not been called last October in Tallahassee.
With Golson transferring to Florida State, the reins of the offense are handed to junior Malik Zaire, a four-star recruit who unseated Golson in bowl practice last year, then went on to win Music City Bowl MVP honors, as he threw for 96 yards and a touchdown and ran for 96 yards and a touchdown to beat LSU. Zaire hardly took the college football world by storm, but he showed enough talent, and Notre Dame won't need him to try to do too much like Golson did last year. He'll embrace the option game out of the spread, giving the Irish a dynamic running threat at quarterback surrounded by talent, whether it's star left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a deep receiving corps or the solid tailback combination of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
The Irish can push the tempo and keep defenses off balance with Zaire's legs -- Golson could run, but it's more of a focal point of Zaire's game -- along with his ability to throw downfield. This has the look of a diverse offense with plenty of size and speed, to go along with a dual-threat quarterback primed for a breakout.
Defensively, top cornerback KeiVarae Russell (and possibly starting end Ishaq Williams) returns from his Golson-like suspension, joining a unit that features stars in linebacker Jaylon Smith and lineman Sheldon Day, along with promising players like safety Max Redfield and defensive tackle Jarron Jones. The Irish were abysmal defensively in the second half of last season, but a depleted back seven held them back, and they were further exposed by a mediocre pass rush. The return of Russell is key, as will be second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's attempt to generate more pressure from his aggressive defensive philosophy. It's hardly a given, but the pieces are there for a rapid turnaround. Notre Dame doesn't have to be as dominant defensively as it was in 2012, given the talent it has on offense, but some semblance of consistency and playmaking ability can go a long way.
There are no guarantees, especially with a challenging schedule that includes Texas, Georgia Tech, Navy and USC at home, along with road trips to Virginia, Clemson, Pitt and Stanford -- all winnable, but plenty losable if things don't develop as expected. Still, there is reason for optimism, for believing that the problems of last year have solutions this year, that 11-1 doesn't seem unrealistic with a split of the USC and Clemson games. Nineteen starters return. Turnovers are bound to be less of a problem than last year. An exciting new quarterback is surrounded with weapons. The defense can only get better.
Unlike 2012, Notre Dame will open the season ranked in the top 25, probably in the top 15. Vegas, however, has caught on to what Notre Dame has coming back: Bovada odds released on Wednesday say Notre Dame currently sits at 20/1 to win the national title, tied with Baylor for seventh (behind Ohio State, Alabama, TCU, Auburn, Florida State and USC).
There's no use getting carried away so soon, especially given how often that strategy has backfired in prognosticating Notre Dame football seasons, time after time. Let the Irish earn the hype. The level of talent, however, says that Notre Dame could play a big role in the playoff race, delivering on the promise of the first half of last season. Last year's problems were concerning, but they're fixable. For only the third time in the last 20 years, Notre Dame may be good enough to rise back into the top-10 range that it called home for so much of college football history.
For once, hyping Notre Dame after a subpar season feels right.