A Brief Case for Optimism

As we ease our way into another blessed season of college football, the best and inarguably stupidest sports circuit on the planet Earth, I’d like to briefly draw our attention to the recent past just one more time (sorry not sorry, it’s going to be 2020 for the rest of our lives). I do so because it’s a convenient vehicle for clear-eyed optimism about the very near future, specifically regarding the 133rd football team the University of Notre Dame is set to field.

Just in case it slipped your mind, the 2020 Irish logged their third undefeated regular season of the Brian Kelly era. They did so in the midst of a global pandemic, operating in an extraordinarily weird and tenuous situation on campus. They were among the most forceful voices in the community advocating for racial justice and equity, doing so in the shadow of their own university president cavorting maskless around the nation’s capital, possibly giving the actual POTUS the plague, and generally embarrassing the Notre Dame faithful every step along the way. All they did was win every game on the schedule, save for that lone cancellation. It’s hard to truly understand what a monumental accomplishment that was on the part of the players and coaching staff, so we’d better look elsewhere for context.

LSU followed up arguably the most pristine season in college football history with a 5-5 clunker (an unprecedented amount of talent drain obviously had a lot to do with it, but they were essentially Missouri for a year — wait, actually, they lost to Missouri, so not even that). They’re ranked 16th in the preseason AP poll, because voters realize even talented teams were put in near-impossible circumstances last year. They’ll be fine.

The 2019 Penn State Nittany Lions went 11-2, won the Cotton Bowl, and logged their third top-ten finish under James Franklin. The 2020 Penn State Nittany Lions went 4-5, stooping so low as to lose to Nebraska (still beat Michigan, tho). They’re 19th in the preseason AP poll, because it’s clear that last year’s (again, very talented) team understandably had a tough time adjusting to their new normal — they lost their first five and won their last four, pretty wild. They’ll be fine.

And for all the talk about the program-sustaining and building Paul Chryst has accomplished at Wisconsin, for all the talk about their year-over-year consistency (and it is justified! They’ve only dipped into a single digit win column once under Chryst prior to 2020) — the Badgers had to claw their way to a 4-3 record last year. They’re currently ranked 12th and are favored by a hair against our very own Fighting Irish, because 2020’s funkiness doesn’t mean they didn’t (and still do) have plenty of very, very good football players. They’ll be fine.

It’s a bit of a trend among the national CFB media to take the under on this year’s Irish — there’s conventional wisdom around departing talent, a sneaky tough schedule, and some hazy insistence on regression that make varying degrees of sense. But outside of the logical comebacks to those arguments — the new crop stepping in for those departures might actually be an upgrade; there’s no one on that schedule with a more talented and complete roster than the Irish; regression to what mean, yet another humble double-digit win season? — the overarching reason for optimism to abound is the very real foundation of this football program that’s been building and building since the old one crumbled in 2016.

Losing Clark Lea could have been a reason for genuine pessimism, but BK went out and got just about a sure thing to replace him. The same goes for losing Ian Book, who will be sorely missed, but Jack Coan has the experience and skillset to keep the train moving. That Kelly and crew kept their eyes on the ball through last year’s utterly insane sequence of events, and more impressively, kept their own (college kid!) players locked in as well, is more than enough reason to believe they can handle the bright lights in Tallahassee, Blacksburg, and beyond. There’s top five talent at safety, tight end, center, and running back, at the very least. No reason this group can’t be special as well.

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