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Owens: Stanford is this season’s measuring stick (Nov. 21)

Andrew Owens | Sunday, November 20, 2011

After surviving a light three-game stretch of ACC opponents in November, it all comes down to Saturday for Notre Dame.

When the lights go out in Palo Alto, Calif., the regular season will be over and we will know if the Irish were able to salvage the 2011 season.

The game is virtually meaningless for Notre Dame in terms of bowl slotting — win or lose, the Champs Sports Bowl is the likely destination. But it means so much more than that when you look at the big picture.

If the Irish fall to No. 4 Stanford, no one will be surprised, but it will be a disappointing finish for a team unable to shake the thunderclouds that hovered above Notre Dame Stadium in the loss against South Florida.

Currently standing at 8-3, it simply has been a disappointing season for Notre Dame. Irish coach Brian Kelly made it quite clear during fall practice that a Bowl Championship Series berth would be the indicator of a whether or not 2011 was successful.

With the exception of the 31-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 17, Notre Dame’s 11 games can be placed in three categories. The blowout wins in which the Irish did exactly what was expected of them (Purdue, Air Force, Navy and Maryland), games they gutted out a win against an inferior opponent (Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College) and flat-out disappointments (South Florida, Michigan and USC).

“We’ve overcome a lot of things, and just a really nice victory for our football team today,” Kelly said after Notre Dame’s 16-14 win over Boston College, the eighth win in nine games and the 12th in 15 games for the Irish.

But really, Notre Dame has not needed to overcome many “things” — rather, it has needed to overcome itself, with 10 turnovers in the first two games, the second of which was a colossal fourth-quarter collapse at Michigan, and a mind-bogglingly flat performance against USC.

The combined record of teams Notre Dame has beaten is 39-47. Take out Michigan State, and it’s 30-45. It’s hard to find any adversity that has not been self-induced.

But, as unpredictable as the 2011 Irish have been, the historical narrative of this season can still have a positive spin on it with a win at Stanford.

Thanks to the losses of Oklahoma State, Oregon and Oklahoma, the Cardinal once again have a path to the national championship game. If they beat the Irish on Saturday, the SEC West logjam could take care of itself and Stanford would make the championship game, which gives Notre Dame an incredible opportunity this weekend.

Beat Stanford, finish the regular season 9-3 with wins over two top-10 teams (Michigan State and Stanford), and suddenly it’s a potential 10-win season. Not bad at all, especially when you consider it is only year two of a completely new system. Kelly proved last season how critical end-of-year momentum is when it comes to recruiting. (Without a 4-0 finish, Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams might be at Florida State, Georgia Tech and Penn State, respectively.) The outlook would also be very bright heading into a 2012 season that features the most daunting schedule in recent memory.

The end of the 2011 volume of Notre Dame football is quickly approaching, but the final chapter has yet to play out.

Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]

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