Almost a year ago, the buzz surrounding the undefeated Fighting Irish was just starting to build after the historic institution had begun the season with understandably tempered expectations. Despite their 11 consensus national titles and reputation as a storied football factory, Notre Dame hadn’t played for it all since their 1989 Fiesta Bowl-win over West Virginia, leaving many Irish fans hesitant to dream of a return trip to gridiron greatness.
While we obviously weren’t aware of Notre Dame’s upcoming undefeated season at that point, the Irish had formed an identity as a tough defensive team with a multi-faceted offense, capable of at least competing with some of the nation’s top programs.
One year later, the 22nd-ranked Irish (3-1) head into a matchup with 15th-ranked Oklahoma Sooners (3-0) this Saturday in South Bend, hoping to come away with a win worthy of keeping their bowl-game hopes alive.
Losing key ingredients to last year’s (12-1) team such as quarterback Everett Golson, tight end Tyler Eifert, running back Cierre Wood, and linebacker Manti T’eo to name just a few, Notre Dame is a much less experienced team with a mediocre defense, disappointing ground-game, and an offense that has a habit of disappearing. Despite these concerns, the Irish were ranked as high as 12th in several preseason polls, placing unreal expectations on this year’s squad.
Fortunately for the Irish, when Golson was unexpectedly suspended for the fall semester due to “poor academic judgment,” the team was able to hand the ball to senior Tommy Rees, an experienced pivot who has been given one final shot under center for the “Golden Domers.” Familiar with the offense, Rees has thrown for 1,111 yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions this season, while reestablishing himself as Notre Dame’s on-field leader.
Hosting Temple in their first game of 2013, the Irish played well, winning 28-6 with the help of a season-high 188 total rushing yards and a strong defensive performance that limited the Owls to just six points. While many consider the win over Temple to be Notre Dame’s best performance so far this season, it’s difficult to gauge the overall potential of this team unless they’re facing a more formidable opponent.
In their second contest of the season, Notre Dame would get the opportunity to challenge a top-15 power when they traveled to Michigan to face the Wolverines for their annual installment of what has become a heated rivalry. Forced to leave Ann Arbor with their only defeat so far this season, Notre Dame looked unimpressively average during their 41-30 loss at Michigan on September 7th.
Other than the one loss to the Wolverines, Notre Dame has yet to face any other top-25 programs yet this year, making a win over the 14th-ranked Sooners this weekend essential to their plans for a return trip to the postseason.
Recent wins over Big 10 opponents such as Purdue (31-24) and Michigan State (17-13) definitely won’t hurt, but if the Irish hope to be playing for anything of consequence beyond the regular season, victories over the bigger programs on their schedule such as Arizona State, USC, and BYU, are a must as well.
Going forward, it all starts this weekend against Oklahoma. If the Irish can replicate last season’s performance in Norman, Notre Dame’s regular season finale at Stanford, who is currently a top-five program, will be the final obstacle standing between them and a return to football beyond the fall.
But it won’t be easy this weekend against the visiting Sooners, who have allowed only 27 points this season and own the 16th-ranked rushing attack in the country with 271 yards per game. Averaging over 33 points per contest, Oklahoma has defeated the University of Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia, and the University of Tulsa, and will be playing their first road game of 2013 on Saturday afternoon in South Bend.
For the Irish, a loss on Saturday would more than likely bring their BCS aspirations to an abrupt halt. Even with a victory, Notre Dame will be hard-pressed to come anywhere near their 2012 performance, yet there are those who still believe this team to be capable of some great things in 2013.
Considering their current situation however, a win on Saturday may say more about this team then we learn during the remainder of their 12-game schedule, unfortunately, not all learning experiences are positive.