For more than a decade, Notre Dame was simply trying too hard.
It wanted desperately to be the team it was under Knute Rockne and Ara Parseghian.
Heck, it would have settled for the Lou Holtz era. The man with the lisp at least won a national title.
But that was 25 years ago.
Since then, Notre Dame has been a shell of its former self.
It went through too many coaches, including subpar performances from Tyrone Willingham, Bob Davie and Charlie Weis.
And it went through the embarrassment of having George O’Leary for its coach — for five days.
The mystique of Touchdown Jesus — Notre Dame’s mosaic emblem that looms over the stadium from the north end zone — had faded.
Monday, the Fighting Irish have a chance to erase all of those bad memories, though, and add a new chapter in Notre Dame folklore. Notre Dame has re-emerged as a national power under third-year coach Brian Kelly.
Kelly, who won 34 games in three years at Cincinnati, has seemingly rescued the Irish from nearly 20 years of mediocre football.
Now, though, the pressure begins to mount. Parseghian won a title in his third season in South Bend, Ind.
So, did Holtz. Now, Brian Kelly is trying to do the same.
It won’t come easy.
Notre Dame is nearly a 10-point underdog despite going 12-0. There are those that knock the Irish for not playing in a conference or for the fact that they almost lost to Pittsburgh, which got dismantled by an average SEC team Saturday in Ole Miss.
Notre Dame didn’t play a SEC team this season but stayed away from the cupcakes. The Irish played 10 BCS opponents and BYU, giving the Irish perhaps the toughest schedule in college football. It also defeated Stanford and Oklahoma, two teams inside the top-10. Alabama? It actually had a fairly easy SEC slate this season, avoiding Florida and South Carolina.
But, that does not mean the Crimson Tide aren’t as tough as ever. Only Johnny “Football” Manziel has figured out the Crimson Tide this season.
But, in order for Kelly to do what those before him have done, he has to unseat Alabama and he has to unseat the SEC.
That is something no one else in the nation has been able to do.
The SEC has won six straight national titles, with Florida and the Crimson Tide each winning twice and sandwiching them in between with LSU and Auburn. Texas, Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio State all failed. It was so bad last season that a SEC rematch determined the national champion (Alabama and LSU).
That kind of dominance hasn’t been known in college football, well, since Rockne was roaming the sidelines. But, that is not saying that Notre Dame does not have a fighting chance.
How? By beating the SEC at its own game.
Notre Dame has built an SEC-style team that wins up front and flourishes in the running game.
Kelly and his staff knew it had to toughen up after consecutive 8-5 seasons, so it pushed its offensive and defensive lines to become more physical.
The Irish have the No.1 scoring defense in the country, the No. 1 rush defense in the red zone in the country and only allowed one rushing touchdown from inside the 20-yard line.
In fact, the Irish look a lot like Alabama.
In order for the Irish to win the national title, they have to keep playing like an SEC team — dominate the run game and dominate the line of scrimmage.
If they can do that, the Fighting Irish won’t be trying to be something it isn’t anymore.
The Irish, instead, will be national champions once again.
Contact Nick Talbot at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7569