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Joseph: Saturday decides if Irish are back (Oct. 12)

Allan Joseph | Friday, October 12, 2012

It’s been the big debate all week. Four simple words.

“Is Notre Dame back?”

It’ll be answered Saturday, and it’s very straightforward. If the No. 7 Irish win, then they’re back. If not, then, well, keep waiting.

Just six weeks ago, a quick glance at the schedule and depth chart sent Irish fans scurrying for phrases like “opportunity for growth” and “springboard season.” In that view of the season, a close loss to a quality Stanford team would be an encouraging sign. The No. 17 Cardinal are consistently a strong team with standout line play and incredible discipline, and a close game would have been enough to satisfy the Irish faithful.

Now? The Irish are favored, and anything less than a victory will be a disappointment.

Think about that for a second. Stanford is a squad that rarely loses to smoke-and-mirrors opponents, Washington notwithstanding. The Cardinal meticulously prepare, play tremendously smart football and are as tough a team as any. That’s the recipe that led Stanford to flat-out dominate the Irish for the last three years.

And now the Irish are expected to win. It’s amazing how far things have come – since the beginning of the season, and since Brian Kelly took over. This is exactly where Kelly wants his program to be. He doesn’t want people to be surprised Notre Dame is good. He doesn’t want columnists musing about whether Notre Dame is back. He wants to be expected to win. He wants winning to be normal. He wants the crushing pressure of lofty expectations.

He had none of those things six weeks ago. But he has them now, and he’s earned them. The real test comes next. Can the Irish fulfill their expectations? Can they win not only the games against good teams like Michigan and Michigan State, but the games against great ones like Stanford and Oklahoma? That test starts this weekend.

Cardinal coach David Shaw has picked up where his predecessor, Jim Harbaugh, left off. For a while, Stanford’s rise to the top echelon of programs looked like it would be shorter than a Palo Alto rainstorm. But Shaw has solidified the Cardinal’s standing in the first tier of the Pac-12, competing with – and beating – the likes of Oregon and USC on a regular basis.

Beating decent Big Ten teams like Michigan State and Michigan should no longer be enough to appease the Irish faithful. That should be the beginning. No offense to the league I grew up watching, but it simply isn’t up to par with the Pac-12 or Big 12, much less the SEC. Beating Stanford would be a much-needed sign the Irish are back on a national scale, for it would signify Notre Dame’s readiness to compete with the best of the best.

It’s not as if the tests stop after Stanford. BYU is pesky, and an Oct. 27 trip to Oklahoma looms. If the Irish win the next three, they’ll be 8-0 and the hype machine will be out of control. But that means teams like Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest will be looking to pull off a signature upset.

And everyone knows who’s on the schedule Thanksgiving weekend.

None of that matters if Notre Dame doesn’t beat Stanford. Sure, there’s still a shot at a BCS bowl game and the best finish since 2005. That’s great, but it’s not what Kelly came to South Bend to do.

If the Irish are back, no win should be surprising. Every loss should be. Despite the way things looked just six weeks ago, a win this weekend wouldn’t be a surprise. And if the Irish are 6-0 after this weekend, neither would any win after that.


Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected]

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