The college football universe has surely always existed in a sort of shambolic, upside down state where absurdity reigns and universally accepted truths are as rare as a Michigan victory over their Ohioan rivals. That much is not news. But it’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous season than this one — no need to relitigate every inane misstep and indiscretion, because it would take far too long to catalogue every swing and miss from the NCAA, the playoff committee, conference leaders, head coaches, school presidents, and media personalities in the last few months. All of this is to say that it would be fair to view the 2020 season with an asterisk of sorts (Penn State fans rejoice), or at least that it should be contextualized to account for the failures in leadership across the board. You know who really doesn’t need to hedge and fall back on asterisks, though? Notre Dame football. I think we should give a little thanks for that.
As it became clear that the season would, in fact, happen, it was hard to think up any traditional framework for what would qualify as a successful season other than players enjoying themselves and not contracting the plague. Notre Dame’s football program initially did a great job in the Covid department, until pesky little details like “more than ten thousand people arriving on campus” and “eating in large groups indoors” came into play. It will unfortunately take time, and perhaps a change of leadership, for the university to reckon with the multitude of moral stains it accumulated with purpose during the fall semester. That reality is not going away, and I would be remiss not to mention it. I intend to continue applying whatever pressure I can on Notre Dame to right its wrongs, in tandem with this community of like-minded friends. But I digress — the failings aren’t on the backs of the players, who I feel obligated to express my deep appreciation for.
You’re aware that this blog differs from scores of Notre Dame Old Heads in the way we view the team and its place in the broader spectacle of the college football world — that “championship or bust” is an unserious way to digest this passive experience, where every single outcome, every single data point, is fully out of our control. There’s so much more to appreciate than a single trophy; that being said, fandom is a whole lot more fun when Notre Dame wins a lot, something that’s routine and expected at this point. But who among us would have had the right to criticize anyone on the roster, in these circumstances especially, for difficulties in expertly preparing for this sport while the university itself flailed wildly, for intermittent mental lapses in the face of a raging pandemic and rampant racial injustice and a generally violent and cruel government response to it all? Would we have been distressed if Notre Dame had a mediocre season? Sure, that’s how it goes, god knows we’ve been there before. Would it have really mattered? No; some people have real problems.
But the Irish weren’t mediocre, and in fact have been a model of excellence, resilience, and cohesiveness on the football field. Yet another ho-hum perfect regular season speaks for itself. A day or two before the Clemson game, Alex and I took a long neighborhood walk (pretty much the one thing we’ve done for months on end now) and talked through what the game could mean for the program. We made a point to say that a loss did not disqualify the Irish from a successful season of football, which should be obvious to all but is unclear to many. I also remember noting that a win over #1 would *automatically* mean the season was a triumph, emphatically and unconditionally.
That’s where we find ourselves today, the Irish having done the damn thing and casually dodged every wheezing Upset Alert with a confidence and poise that is rare in any program, let alone this one. I’ve been forced to reevaluate the team’s ceiling on a near-weekly basis — Ian Book gets a whole lot of credit for pushing it up, up, up, but he doesn’t get a chance to without the defense holding true on the biggest series of their lives to date, or without the offensive line withstanding Clemson’s barrage of blitzes, and so on. Every facet of this team has been a joy to take in, the give and take between each unit so graceful and responsive to the others that it’s impossible not to place this Irish coaching staff in the sport’s tier of elites.
Saturday’s second round feels like another tossup; Notre Dame wins and they’re a great football team, Notre Dame loses and they’re a great football team. I reject tying a disproportionate amount of importance to this bizarre bonus round the Irish are contractually obligated to participate in, even if that’s partially due to my prior biases. They’ve already accomplished more than arguably any team in the country, so I’d rather not waste my time sweating something like 5-win Ohio State or the Alabama buzzsaw that likely awaits. I’m enthralled by this team, and am mostly excited for another few opportunities to watch them play together and try to win a title. This is fun, in the midst of deeply unfun times, and I’m grateful. Beat ‘em again; why not?