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Ben Smith

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History may again be on Notre Dame’s side

Suddenly, now, and impossibly, there is a whiff of 1988 in the air. Doesn’t Brian Kelly look just a little like Lou Holtz, playing peek-a-boo with his play card over there on the far sideline? And what about Manti Te’o, steaming off the edge to turn Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones into a buttermilk pancake?

That could be Frank Stams or Michael Stonebreaker, blowing in to ruin Major Harris’ day and lift Notre Dame to No. 1. It could be ’88, or a whiff of it, with hints of ’77 and ’66 in there, too, just for seasoning.

Third year was the charm for Ara Parseghian in ’66 and Dan Devine in ’77 and Holtz in ’88. Third year now for Kelly, too. And so …

And so these could be the Wayback Machine Irish, and if you didn’t believe that before Saturday night – and why would you, after all the false positives of the last 16 years? – it is almost impossible not to now. That was not just another Notre Dame team waiting to be exposed that you saw out there in Norman, Okla. That was a Notre Dame team that can play with anyone. And not just play with them, but house them, 30-13, in a house where Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners had lost only four times in the last 83 games.

And now here they are, unbeaten and third in the BCS behind Alabama and Kansas State, and it’s no longer even improbable that they could wind up playing for the national title in Kelly’s third year. You can argue Alabama is the clear No. 1, and the Crimson Tide is. You can also argue Kansas State, at No. 2, is still better – but if you do that, you have to explain why K-State beat Oklahoma by five, and Notre Dame beat a better Oklahoma team (or so said Landry Jones) by 17.

It’s the worst sort of cliché to look at that and say the Irish are relevant again, because they’ve never not been relevant in most of the ways college football measures these things now. Even as they slogged through the Davie years and Willingham years and Weis years, after all, no one drove the market like Notre Dame. Irish football was an unkillable brand no matter how badly USC embarrassed it every fall.

So the Irish were always relevant. But now they’re also good, actually and legitimately.

As November comes in, they’re set up to run the table, and just because no one saw that coming doesn’t make it any less a reality. The hors d’oeuvre portion of the schedule – Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest – lies just ahead. Then comes USC, a penciled-in loss back in the unsuspecting days of late August.

Not anymore. Now it’s a game Notre Dame not only could but should win, because the Trojans are not nearly what everyone thought they would be, either.

They’re thin up front where Notre Dame is dominant – Matt Barkley has been sacked 10 times so far this year – and RichRod’s Arizona Wildcats just scored 26 straight points on them in the second half to steal a win.

So, they’re eminently gettable.

And after that?

Who knows, if the Irish finish 12-0 for the first time since, ahem, 1988.

The BCS run things now, and if ’Bama and K-State win out, the BCS will likely still have them ahead of the Irish. But stranger things have happened.

Know what the strangest is?

That none of this seems strange at all anymore.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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