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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


“If you have two goalies, you have none.”

That’s an old National Hockey League adage that laments the multi-goalie dilemma confronting many coaches, especially during Stanley Cup playoff time. With a pair of goalies and no clear-cut starter, the thought goes, whichever one is in the nets on a particular night will tend to be constantly looking over his shoulder. (Think the Vancouver Canucks’ Alain Vigneault the past couple of seasons, usually spoiled for choice, but not so come playoff time, with netminders Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider often proving distractions to one another.) Unless, that is, the coach is bold enough to plot out a game-by-game strategy beforehand. Such as, “Goalie A starts Game One, goalie B starts Game Two” and so forth.

Quarterback controversies can also have a disruptive influence in football...if, that is, as in hockey, a coach isn’t careful. A rotating QB system can occasionally work effectively, but usually only when the coach has laid out a specific gameplan using multiple signal-callers who know beforehand what their roles are going to be. On the other hand, indiscriminate QB shuffling has often led to disastrous results. It’s no surprise that most coaches loathe the entire multiple-QB concept.

Which brings us to Notre Dame’s fast-approaching 2012 football season, one in which HC Brian Kelly apparently exited spring with no idea who from among four candidates (jr. Tommy Rees, RS soph Andrex Hendrix, soph Everett Golson, or true frosh Gunner Kiel) would be taking the majority of snaps for the Fighting Irish this fall. Already, a handful of Domers are suggesting that Kelly could be tempted to use two, three, or perhaps all four QBs as the situations dictate. Other believe Kelly would truly like to name one starter and simply go from there, although available evidence indicates none of the candidates has come close to emerging as a clear-cut number one choice.

So, entering fall camp, Kelly is simply juggling alternatives...much as the Notre Dame brand seems to be doing as well.

It is fair to ask if this indeed is the Fighting Irish program that our fathers and previous generations had known. Notre Dame has not won a national title in almost a quarter century and is going on 20 years since winning a New Year’s Day bowl. The Irish seem to be slipping further and further away from the national elite, even after the hiring of the wildly-successful Kelly from Cincinnati after the 2009 campaign. In two seasons, however, Kelly’s Notre Dame continues to spin its wheels, managing only modest success (a pair of 8-5 records).

Kelly himself has said eight-win seasons are not the standard at Notre Dame. We might qualify that statement: historically, eight-win seasons aren’t the standard, but over the past fifteen seasons (since Lou Holtz departed after the ‘96 campaign) they’ve often been above the new norm in South Bend. Only five times in that span have the Irish won more than 8 games; eight times, Notre Dame hasn’t even reached that total of wins.

Thus, the same question is being asked at Blue & Gold Clubs across the country: Can Notre Dame football can ever re-scale those former lofty heights it used to reach with regularity?

Responses within the Fighting Irish family have uncovered a deep divide among Domers, mostly along chronological lines. Generally, the older Notre Dame crowd still believes the good 'ol days are a birthright, and that independent gridiron status remains the best option to achieve glory. On the other hand, some of the new blood infiltrating the school’s Board of Regents believes that the Irish are hurting themselves by continuing on their independent path and should join forces with one of the many high-profile conferences that would bend over backwards to count the Irish among their members. Recruiting, says these sorts, has been damaged by the lack of conference affiliation, along with the fact that none of the current-day preps can recall the Irish as a serious national title contender.

Longtime observers see parallels in the modern-day conference-or-no-conference debate to another one that annually took place decades ago, when Notre Dame strictly adhered to its no-bowl policy. Hard as it is to believe, the Irish once went 44 years without accepting bowl bids until finally relenting after the 1969 regular season.

The story of how that change of policy came about almost 43 years ago remains a fascinating tale. We have always been humored by a quote from Notre Dame’s then-AD Moose Krause, who, after the Domers accepted a bid to play Texas in the January 1, 1970 Cotton Bowl, stated that the modern convenience of air travel was one of the reasons the Irish decided to reverse course on the no-bowl policy. Which, predictably, moved several wags to comment that while Notre Dame invented the glamour of college football, it took the Irish almost 45 years to discover the airplane.

Much like the current “should we or shouldn’t we join a conference?” debate, similar discussions regarding the Notre Dame bowl policy began to heat up in the ‘60s. For reasons that can only be understood through the lens of hubris and hypocrisy (long staples in South Bend), Notre Dame avoided bowls for decades, according to many, to simply stand out from among the rest of the college gridiron world, and not be regarded as a dreaded “football factory” as had so many rival institutions. This from a school that received more benefit and notoriety from the gridiron than any other. Travel concerns and impingement upon the academic progress of the football players were always outwardly cited as other reasons for Notre Dame not to partake.

Financial realities, however, became too hard for the school to continue ignoring in the late ‘60s. That's when HC Ara Parseghian (left, with Michigan State's Duffy Daugherty), a fervent proponent of breaking the bowl ban since his hiring in 1964, was gathering enough support from the Board of Regents, which now included a number of football-minded laymen, to overturn the school’s decades-long bowl ban.

For Parseghian, the benefits were obvious. More recognition for his squad and program from the expected TV ratings bonanza, not to mention more chance to recruit in specific areas of the country.

For the school, the benefits were more practical. In a word, money.

The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame and a longtime hardliner regarding the non-bowl participation, suddenly began to change his tune when noting that fund-raising could use a boost. “Let’s think about it,” Hesburgh finally said about bowl participation in the summer of ‘69, lending hope to the legions of Domers and subway alums who had long been clamoring for the Irish to accept postseason invitations.

On the field, Notre Dame fielded another strong team in 1969, led by emerging jr. QB Joe Theismann (right), but an early-season 28-22 loss at Mike Phipps-led Purdue, and a 14-14 midseason draw at home vs. Southern Cal, eliminated the Irish from serious national title discussion. Still, Notre Dame was a top ten team and figured to command a high-profile bowl bid if it reversed course on its postseason hiatus. By late October of that year, both the athletic and alumni boards had sent recommendations to Hesburgh that endorsed the bowl idea.

Bowl committees, however, were understandably skeptical, having dealt with Notre Dame’s bowl rumor mill in the past. These were also the days before most of the major bowls had contractually-guaranteed spots with conferences. Aside from the Rose Bowl, which pitted the Big Ten and Pac-8 champs, and the Cotton Bowl, which saved one spot for the champion of the Southwest Conference, bowl selection was a free-for-all in those days. With numerous Big Eight and SEC power teams, plus Penn State, very much free-agents in the selection process of the day, the big bowls were reluctant to save a spot for the Irish until the South Bend bunch gave a formal okay for its participation.

The Orange Bowl, which in mid-November of ‘69 was still not sure Notre Dame was serious, might have been able to land the Irish had developments unfolded in a different manner. Parseghian was said to have preferred the Miami locale because of the desirable trip to Florida, night-time TV audience on NBC, and extra exposure with the Eastern press corps. But Joe Paterno’s Penn State was not playing the will-we-or-won’t-we game as was Notre Dame; the undefeated Nittany Lions were of course into bowl fray with both feet, and had indeed made quite an impression in Miami the previous year in an exciting 15-14 win over Pepper Rodgers’ Kansas Jayhawks in the Orange. The Miami connections knew they would have a hot commodity if they could land Penn State, which at that time seemed a safer bet than gambling on Notre Dame eventually breaking from its no-bowl policy in time for the New Year's night game.

It’s worth remembering that by mid-November of 1969, top-ranked Ohio State, which would be ineligible for the Rose Bowl due to the Big Ten no-repeat rule of the day, was expected to make the national title debate a moot point as long as it finished the regular season unbeaten. And it was decision time for many bowls before the conclusion of the regular season. Paterno, not thinking a national title would be on the line for his fourth-ranked squad against either number two Texas or number three Arkansas (who still had a showdown planned for early December) in the Cotton, instead put a Miami or Dallas vote to his players, who overwhelmingly preferred the former. (It was said that many black members of the Penn State team had no interest whatsoever in a New Year’s trip to Dallas, considered much-more hostile territory for minorities in those days, and overwhelmingly approved sunny Miami.) Paterno thus told the Orange Bowl he would accept its bid. After an unbeaten Tennessee squad fell from favored status in mid-November when losing 38-0 to Ole Miss and Archie Manning, removing the Vols from top-tier consideration, and while Notre Dame continued to ponder, the Orange instead set up a tasty matchup between Penn State and one-loss, Big 8 champ Missouri.

Then, however, the college football world was turned inside-out by Ohio State’s subsequent 24-12 loss to Bo Schembechler’s first Michigan squad on November 22. The co-chairman of the Cotton Bowl selection committee, Field Scovell, would now have a number one team (the winner of the Texas-Arkansas showdown in two weeks) in Dallas. Paterno, having instead enlisted with the Orange before the Michigan upset of Ohio State, would forever lament missing a chance to play for the chance at number one vs. the Longhorns or Razorbacks. Meanwhile, the Irish began to stir a bit more, warming to the idea of playing the highest-rated team possible in a bowl with a conference tie-in as opposed to one with a commercial sponsor.

Scovell, who still had a rugged, functional, and workmanlike one-loss LSU team on the string for the Cotton, was initially skeptical when receiving a call from a well-placed Notre Dame connection that the Irish were seriously interested in a bowl. But as events unfolded in late November, the fit for the Irish in the Cotton became obvious. Soon, Scovell was consumed by the thought that Notre Dame would break its self-imposed bowl ban in his Cotton, against a number one Texas or Arkansas.

“When you hear you’ve got a real chance to get Notre Dame for the first time in 45 years,” Scovell said in an SI piece at the time, “you don’t care about anything else.”

Scovell and Southwest Conference executive director Wilbur Evans then embarked upon a painstaking trek to South Bend, overcoming a blizzard, missed flight connections, and eventually hovering above South Bend, unable to land for hours, before finally touching down. Unable to wait, Scovell rushed to a pay phone to call Notre Dame’s Father Edmund Joyce, the school’s executive vice president, who had been a proponent of the bowl.

“You have nothing to worry about,” Joyce assured Scovell, and presto, the Notre Dame self-imposed bowl exile was history.

(As a byproduct of Notre Dame’s belated entry into the 1969 bowl fray, that aforementioned 9-1 LSU team, only three points removed from an unbeaten regular season and ranked 8th in the polls, went without a bowl invitation.)

Of course, in typical Fighting Irish fashion, the school announced at the time that it was making a one-time exception to participate in the Cotton, but every reasonable observer knew that was so much hooey. Once getting a taste of the postseason, Notre Dame would return. The Irish, losing a last-minute 21-17 verdict to top-ranked Texas in that Cotton Bowl, would return to Dallas the next season as well and earn sweet revenge vs. another Longhorns national title-hopeful in a 24-11 Irish upset, one of Parseghian's finest hours.

Now, no one thinks twice about Notre Dame and bowls, even the most low-profile of which being attractive to the Irish these days if there are no other options for the Domers to consider.

Any correlation between Notre Dame’s long-ago bowl policy departure from 43 years ago, and the Irish’s current join-or-not-join a conference debate?

Yes, and no. Yes, like there was in the late '60s with the bowl debate, there is a growing faction of Domers who want to join a football conference, but the discussion is hardly a new one. The topic, which has been broached for as long as since the old self-imposed bowl ban was in effect, has heated up on occasion through the years. There were serious discussions about a long-rumored hookup with the Big Ten within the last decade that eventually fizzled, and the Irish continue to pop up on the conference-change radar screen.

But, no, unlike the eventual repeal of the non-bowl policy in 1969, a move to a conference doesn’t look imminent, at least at the moment.

Financially, Notre Dame obviously wants to retain as much independence as possible (read: not sharing its TV revenue with anyone else), and for the 23rd consecutive season has its own special TV contract with NBC for home games.

As far as the bowl games go, sources say that Notre Dame will always make out much better as an independent if qualifying for one of the big-money (and soon-to-be renamed BCS) extravaganzas, but the Irish haven’t participated in one of those upper-tier bowls since 2006. Most insiders believe that short of BCS qualification, Notre Dame would turn a bigger profit from the bowls if it were aligned with one of the big conferences and sharing revenues.

The other factor to consider is the NBC contract, one that sources say the Irish don’t want to relinquish, but one that might make any future hookup with the Big Ten an untenable (no pun intended) arrangement. As for the Big Ten, it is so awash in money these days, partially from the successful branding of its own Big Ten network, that adding Notre Dame is not regarded as a panacea as it might have previously been. The SEC is also not campaigning for Notre Dame's enlistment.

Some believe that the Big East, which houses the Irish for non-football sports and has made room in its past bowl arrangements for Notre Dame, missed a chance a few years ago to try forcing the Irish into the league for all sports. The Big East, which has lost several higher-profile members, certainly does not at the present time have the sort of clout to dictate terms to Notre Dame football.

Sources say, however, that should the Irish want to enlist with a league, the ACC and perhaps the Big 12 (and maybe even the Pac 12) would welcome the Domers and their own TV contract, which gives Notre Dame at least a couple of other interesting options.

The fallout from the recent BCS shake-up and future four-team playoff plan has not yet, however, pinned Notre Dame into a corner. With some of the old conference tie-ins to the BCS bowls due to disappear in two years, Irish AD Jack Swarbrick now believes that ND could stay independently buoyant in the new order, especially if it is able to cut its own deal with a high-profile bowl and keep an out clause for itself should it ever get invited to the “Final Four” (or whatever it might be called...we’re suggesting “Football Four”) in the future playoff system.

For the moment, at least, we aren’t expecting much movement on the Notre Dame-to-a-conference front until there is a bit more clarity on the shakeout of the dynamics involved in the playoff system. If the Irish can indeed cut their own sweetheart deal in the new order, then the conference talk is likely tabled until further notice. Stay tuned for future developments.

Any chatter about involvement in future playoffs or big-time bowls, however, rings a bit hollow at the moment in South Bend as the Irish slip further and further from relevance. Can Kelly, who has endured a much bumpier-than-expected ride in his first two seasons at South Bend (let’s not forget the video tower tragedy involving undergrad Declan Sullivan in 2010), begin to turn the Irish in the right direction before finding himself in the sort of hot water that eventually resulted in his three immediate predecessors (Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham, and Bob Davie) all being forced to walk the plank?

For the Irish to rally, the QB situation must stabilize. Last year’s starter Rees remains the favorite to emerge, although he might be looking at an early-season suspension pending mid-July sentencing on four misdemeanor charges after being arrested following a South Bend party on May 3. If precedent was set by last year’s star WR Michael Floyd avoiding any game suspension after a DUI arrest, however, Rees (who has been cleared to participate in summer workouts) might even be available for the opener in Dublin vs. Navy on September 1.

UPDATE July 31: Rees receives one-game suspension, covering opener vs. Navy in Dublin...

Rees (left), more of a classic drop-back thrower, is 12-4 as a starter since 2010 and has passed for 32 TDs and nearly 4000 yards in his career, but has been haunted by crucial mistakes, reflected in his 22 career interceptions. Kelly likes the mobility provided by Hendrix, a Cincinnati Moeller product who provided a change-of-pace on occasion last season and has the arm strength and running ability to effectively operate Kelly’s spread offense. Golson might be the best dual pass-run threat of the bunch and performed better than any in the spring game. Then there’s Kiel, the ballyhooed true frosh (and nephew of a former Irish QB, the late Blair Kiel) who reversed course on an earlier commitment to LSU and instead picked South Bend, where he enrolled early to participate in spring drills.

Update August 22: Everett Golson named starting QB for September 1 game vs. Navy...

These are all quality options for Kelly, who was once able to turn Ben Mauk and Tony Pike into productive QBs in his days at Cincinnati. That QB magic has yet to appear in South Bend, however, and now Kelly must make the decisions on who gets to play, and who doesn’t, while trying to keep all from looking over their shoulders. It’s a delicate operation and the football equivalent to repair work done on the Hubble Space Telescope by a Space Shuttle crew. One mistake and everything could unravel.

Whichever QB takes snaps will not have the secondary-distorting threat provided by departed WR Floyd, who caught a whopping 100 passes last fall and was a first-round choice (13th pick overall) of the Arizona Cardinals in last April’s NFL Draft. The latest in the lineage of productive Notre Dame TEs that dates to Dave Casper, 6'6 sr. Tyler Eifert, is an accomplished underneath weapon who caught 63 passes a year ago and will probably be the top receiving target, at least early in the season.

Still, the QBs could use a downfield threat, and RS soph WR DaVaris Daniels opened many eyes in spring. Upperclass sorts such as John Goodman, T.J. Jones, and Robby Toma have experience but have yet to demonstrate any game-breaking ability (the trio combined for only 638 yards on their 64 catches a year ago).

Kelly and o.c. Chuck Martin were doing some experimenting in spring, with threats such as sr. Theo Riddick, who has flashed occasional homerun ability as a slot-back in the past, and soph RB George Atkinson III, who displayed coast-to-coast potential (especially as kick returner, a role in which he scored 2 TDs last year) as a frosh, being used at both RB and wideout positions. Atkinson, in particular, is being looked upon as a potential deep-ball WR threat, which might be preferable to the risk of playing him at RB, which was underlined in the spring game when he fumbled twice despite gaining 124 YR. It’s more likely that Riddick will instead steal some carries from functional sr. RB Cierre Wood (right), who provided the bulk of the infantry attack in 2011 when rushing for 1102 yards. USC transfer (how many of those have we seen over the years at ND?) Amir Carlisle could also get into the mix in the fall after sitting out spring work with a broken ankle.

Kelly’s line returns three sr. starters from a forward wall that paved the way for runners to gain almost 5 ypc in 2011. A spring "mover" was one of the new starters, jr. RT Chris Lombard, of whom Kelly believes could finally tap the reservoir of talent that made him such a highly-regarded recruit a few years ago. Overall, seven starters, plus several reserves who saw considerable action in 2011, return on “O” this fall.

Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco received a late Christmas present in January when sr. LB Manti Te’o (left, last fall vs. Pitt) decided not to enter the NFL Draft and instead return for one more season in South Bend. After recording 261 tackles the past two seasons, he’s the unquestioned leader of the platoon. But Diaco also took a shot to the gut when playmaking DE Aaron Lynch, who lead all Irish defenders with 5 ½ sacks last season as a frosh, transferred nearer to home at South Florida.

Midwest scouts report that Notre Dame has recruited better defensive speed in recent years, and last season’s stop unit was rarely outrun after the fourth quarter of the wild early-September loss vs. Michigan. When the dust cleared a year ago, the Irish had allowed only 20.7 ppg, good for 24th in the country and impressive considering the many high-powered attacks that ND faced in 2011. Still, Diaco has some key playmakers to replace in the secondary, including big-hitting SS Harrison Smith, who was a first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings, and both of last year’s starting CBs (Gary Gray and Robert Blanton).

Even with Lynch’s premature departure, Diaco likes what he has up front in his 3-4 looks, with plenty of experience in the projected starting lineup (DEs Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt, and NG Louis Nix III, combined for 107 tackles and 11 ½ tackles for loss a year ago). The Te’o-led LB corps, with other returning starters Prince Shembo and Dan Fox, is loaded with potential playmakers.

But as mentioned above, it’s in the defensive backfield where Diaco needs to find some answers. The status of jr. Austin Collinsworth (Chris’ son), whose emergence as a safety could provide Diaco with important flexibility, is now up in the air after June shoulder surgery. If Collinsworth were available, it would allow Diaco to move versatile sr. FS Jamoris Slaughter (right), the only returning starter in the secondary, to the corner and LB spots as needed. Last year’s backup CBs, jrs. Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson, are being asked to step to the fore this fall.

We would be remiss if not mentioning how the Irish shot themselves in the foot so often a year ago. Mention of Rees’ interceptions were only part of the problem in 2011; the Irish also conceded length-of-field fumble return TDs in the midst of rallies last season in eventual losses to South Florida and USC, and the Domers were among the worst in the country (-15, ranked 118th) in turnover margin. Diaco’s defense was also part of the problem and will be expected to record more than the 17 TOs it forced a year ago.

Lastly, note that Kelly's once-notable spread prowess from previous stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati has yet to manifest in South Bend; he’s only 11-12-3 vs. the number the past two seasons, and has covered only 4 of 13 (4-6-3) at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish have also been a solid “under” play (17-8-1) in Kelly’s first two years.

Summary...As always, the Fighting Irish intrigue, but a return to the sort of prominence the Domers once enjoyed appears to be a far-fetched notion this fall. Questions at the QB spot, last year’s self-destruct tendencies, and another wicked schedule that includes the Irish’s first trip to Oklahoma since 1966, plus a couple of other preseason top ten teams in Michigan and Southern Cal, not to mention six other bowl teams from 2011, is daunting to say the least. By this time next year, there could be a growing chorus of Domers who will be wondering if Brian Kelly really is going to be the coach to lead the Irish back to glory...or if those days might really be gone for good
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