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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

How parity in college football opens a path for Irish glory

Notre Dame students cheer during the 56-3 Irish defeat of Tennessee State at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 2.

After years of domination by just a few preeminent college football programs, this season has brought parity to the college football landscape.

Just look at the biggest results from this season. No. 11 Texas beat No. 3 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and No. 8 Florida State beat No. 5 LSU on a neutral field. On both occasions, the underdog going into the matchup secured a double-digit win.

It’s just the clearest example of a sport that has seen its best teams regress toward the pack. We’ve seen No. 1 Georgia trail South Carolina by two scores at halftime. No. 2 Michigan’s star quarterback J.J. McCarthy tossed three interceptions against Bowling Green last weekend. Even No. 3 Texas — just one week after beating Alabama — entered the fourth quarter of a home matchup against Wyoming tied 10-10. These are not the juggernaut teams we’ve grown used to seeing at the top of the CFB rankings.

In past seasons, just a few teams have lived head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack. Often, it’s been the same few programs. Georgia for the last few years. Alabama. Clemson. Ohio State. Every once in a while, you get a 2019 LSU team that breaks into the top tier.

But this year is different.

It feels like there are about 10 teams that can compete at a high level and make a compelling case to reach the College Football Playoff come December. Notre Dame is undeniably a part of that group.

The Irish started the year ranked No. 13 and have slowly made their way up the ranking, taking care of business against a weak schedule that only featured one Power Five opponent. Not only that, but they’ve looked exceptional at times.

Notre Dame’s fourth-quarter performance on the road against NC State was about as good as it gets for a football team. The Irish forced three turnovers (two interceptions, one turnover on downs) and scored 21 unanswered points to pull away from a Wolfpack team that posed the first significant test of the young season.

It’s safe to say these performances have shifted attitudes in South Bend.

Despite Notre Dame’s historical relevance in college football, recent history hasn’t been very kind to Notre Dame. The team has developed a reputation for losing in big games. Blowout losses in the 2012 BCS Championship and in two previous CFP appearances have done little to dispel that notion. Last year, the Irish entered Columbus simply hoping to hold their own with a first-year head coach. This year, it feels like they can beat anyone, including Ohio State this Saturday.

A lot of that has to do with the goodwill established by the Freeman regime. Ever since he was appointed as the Irish head coach, Marcus Freeman has been a fan favorite. Last year’s shocking losses to Marshall and Stanford tested fans’ patience, but a strong end to the year and a thrilling bowl victory made those losses feel like inevitable growing pains.

It also has to do with the man now lining up under center. Graduate student Sam Hartman has brought a newfound confidence to the Notre Dame offense. He brings a wealth of experience and an incredible track record. Wide receivers and tight ends that felt like question marks a month ago feel like strengths now. Hartman is the type of talent that elevates all the others around him.

He’s also become the face of a Notre Dame team that hasn’t had a true superstar since the days of Manti Te’o. He’s a leader, the kind of figure that fills fans with a sense of confidence that he can find a way to win for the team.

This growth for Notre Dame has coincided with many major powerhouse programs transitioning away from periods of dominance. Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Stetson Bennett’s departures have left Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia with questions at quarterback. The same thing happened to Clemson when Trevor Lawrence left for the NFL.

The door is open for Notre Dame and for other programs to challenge the status quo and claim a spot at the top of the college football mountain. This Saturday has plenty of games that will show fans who they can expect to be there at the end of the year. The clash at Notre Dame Stadium stands atop the list, and it will be hard for the team that wins to avoid dreams of a national title.