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Football Commentary: Roller coaster ride ends elsewhere

Ken Fowler | Monday, November 20, 2006

From the time Brady Quinn led Notre Dame Stadium in chants of “Beat SC” from the third row of the junior student section to the time the senior quarterback met with the press, the winds behind Irish sails deflated, and the national championship picture became much clearer – Notre Dame would not be in the title game.

Michigan had just scored its final touchdown and two-point conversion when Quinn stepped up to the podium, his eyes glancing up every few seconds to see the game on the television in the back corner of the room.

What he saw was Notre Dame’s national title hopes fall in a game it could not control, less than an hour after he was on top of the world – and NBC’s television set – in celebration with fans who thought a solid win over the Trojans would launch the Irish to the Jan. 8 BCS championship game.

Before Quinn, Derek Landri spoke as Ohio State held an 11-point lead.

“I’m on the roller coaster still, and I don’t plan on getting off until January 8,” he said. “[The USC] game is going to be like the Michigan-Ohio State game this week. And the winner is probably, most likely, going to the national championship.”

Even Charlie Weis couldn’t escape it. He said he had no intention of running two thirds of the plays Notre Dame practiced before the Army game – they were designed for USC. He even admitted to having studied every Trojan offensive and defensive play this year.

On Sunday, Weis said the reason for his advance scout work was the minimized prep time at home before the Irish leave for Los Angeles Thursday afternoon. But Weis has told white lies about USC before – remember the strong implications, but never out-right statements, that Notre Dame wouldn’t wear green jerseys last October?

“This past week was a really tough week because now you’re forced to do all your work exactly the same for Army and then tack on USC on top of it,” Weis said. “That’s what last week was. The last week was probably the hardest workweek I’ve had this year for that reason.”

But Weis knew the Irish needed some help even before they would take on the Trojans.

“Fire away,” Weis said as usual to begin his post-game press conferences before pausing. “By the way, it’s 35-24 at the end of the third quarter.”

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But after seeing Notre Dame’s worst-case scenario come true – a close win by the Buckeyes – Weis knew his chances at a national title were pretty much gone.

“Well, I’m trying to be practical here,” he said Sunday. “I think that – you know, Ohio State is obviously going to the game. We obviously lost to Michigan at home. I’m well aware of that fact. I think that our best chance, without going being a politician, our best chance is to go out to USC and beat USC and let the chips fall where they may.”

Let the chips fall where they may. That’s an expression usually reserved for a deserving team that’s trying to fight its way into the championship game.

Unfortunately for the Irish seniors like Quinn – probably the program’s greatest quarterback – Notre Dame is no such team. The Irish don’t deserve to make the title game. They lost by 26 to Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium.

In the mathematical dictatorship of college football today, a team that loses by 26 at home has no rightful claim to primacy. All the chips fell the way Notre Dame needed last week. But this week was a different story. The chips fell in a way that will prevent the Irish from making an appearance in the BCS title game. And in the current system – which Notre Dame was a part of forming – that’s only fair.

The six power conferences and the Irish got together to form the BCS from the Bowl Alliance to ensure that No. 1 plays No. 2 in the biggest bowl of them all. And Notre Dame should not be No. 2, even if it beats USC.

For Notre Dame’s purposes, let’s just forget the arguments about Florida and Arkansas, West Virginia and anybody else for a second.

Michigan walloped the Irish at home and lost to an undefeated team by just three points. A rematch is unappealing? So what? The rules these teams established say appeal shouldn’t be considered in national title games. There would be no more No. 1 versus No. 5 matchups like in 1977, and UM should be ahead of ND.

Notre Dame and the SEC schools helped create this system. They agreed to the by-laws and have the power to change them. If the Irish don’t like the result, they have only themselves to blame – both for making the monster and losing during the regular season.

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Notre Dame could beat Ohio State, but that’s not the point. The Irish forfeited their right to a spot in the title game on Sept. 16. Indeed, the normally phenomenal Quinn was responsible for two Michigan touchdowns on his own – a fumble and an interception returned for scores.

At this point in the season, Notre Dame is a much better team than it was in September. With Darius Walker having the best five-game stretch of his career, the offense is far more consistent and balanced than it was in Week 3.

The defense has come a long way, too. The Irish average six tackles for loss – which, compared to USC’s six, Michigan’s 7.2 and Ohio State’s 7.2 is pretty good.

But the goal of the BCS is to reward teams that get the job done every week. Teams that have loads of talent but lose to better-coached or better-prepared teams shouldn’t get a shot to win the title just because they’re talented, the BCS rationale goes.

The only team deserving of any shot at No. 1 is Michigan. The Wolverines lost by three on the road to an undefeated team. USC didn’t show up against Oregon State and failed in its comeback. Florida lost to a vastly overrated Auburn, Arkansas got demolished by USC and the Big East is a league of mediocre parity.

If appeal is the name of the game, then Notre Dame should be in the thick of the ‘Who faces OSU?’ conversation. But it’s not. And the Irish are out.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu