Commentary

Times are changing for Irish

Originally Published: September 18, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

This week's top 20:

20. Notre Dame goes to Mayberry

If you're of a certain age, and know what it's like to have your knuckles thwacked by a ruler-wielding nun, and spent your Saturdays rooting for a certain team in Indiana, and still get misty eyed when Rudy's teammates place their jerseys on Dan Devine's desk … then you're probably conflicted about this latest news involving Notre Dame and its new college sweetheart down South, the ACC.

In short, they got lavaliered, which is fratspeak for "They're engaged to be engaged." And, if this works out the way I think it will, Notre Dame and the ACC eventually will tie the knot.

But if you're a child of the Madden era, and you think Lou Holtz has always been an ESPN studio analyst, and you've never seen Notre Dame win a national championship -- and don't think you ever will -- then you're probably thinking this new ACC-Irish deal is no biggie.

[+] EnlargeJack Swarbrick
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeThe BMOC thinks Notre Dame will be playing football in the ACC in the next dozen years or so.

But it is a big deal, if for no other reason than Notre Dame finally admitted it's no longer the Notre Dame of the 1930s, '40s, '60s, '70s, mid-to-late '80s and early '90s.

Don't get me wrong: There's a lot to admire about the place. It actually insists that its players earn degrees. It has history, tradition, pride, maybe too much pride at times. And, sorry, but there isn't a better place to spend a football Saturday than Notre Dame.

But,from a football standpoint, Notre Dame is the British Empire in its waning days. The sun has all but set on ND's status as the nation's pre-eminent program. I also question how much longer ND can fly solo as an independent.

Of course, Domers everywhere will tell you otherwise. And they'll tell you until they're blue and gold in the face.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick knows better. He knows the Fighting Irish have been frozen out of the non-BCS bowl equation and must wait for everybody else's bowl table scraps. He knows it won't get any easier once the four-team playoff system arrives in two years.

Swarbrick is a pragmatist and nobody's fool. Sure, in his recent comments after the historic announcement, Swarbrick said it would take a "drastic" set of circumstances for the Fighting Irish football program to become a full member of the ACC.

"I don't want to send the wrong message," Swarbrick told reporters in the joint ACC/ND teleconference. "Our intention is to remain independent."

Yes, and it's my intention to date Sofia Vergara. Problem is, there's a big difference between best intentions and reality. And Swarbrick knows that, too.

19. Notre Dame goes to Mayberry -- Part II

Notre Dame is going to become a full-time ACC football school. When? In the immortal words of Humphrey Bogart in "Casablanca": "Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life."

I put the over/under at 2024, maybe a little earlier. By then, nobody will think twice about Notre Dame giving up its maiden name for the ACC.

As always, television is a factor. Notre Dame's contract with NBC runs through the 2015 season. Swarbrick has said he prefers shorter broadcast deals (the ND-NBC contracts have been at five-year intervals), as opposed to the longer-term arrangements conferences such as the ACC and Big 12 have signed recently with networks.

But that doesn't mean Notre Dame would rule out an extended deal that stretched to the 2024-ish time frame and then part ways with NBC. Right now, nobody knows how it's going to shake out. And, for what it's worth, that's about the same time the initial BCS playoff format winds down.

Notre Dame was never going to go west to the Big 12 or the Pac-12. The more geographically suitable Big Ten was an option, but only if it joined as a full member. But Big Ten presidents weren't going to sign off on a deal that gave Notre Dame dual citizenship (indie in football, full member in other sports).

Stay in the Big East? That would have happened about the same time Notre Dame changed its fight song to "Call Me Maybe."

Instead, Notre Dame started visiting Greensboro, N.C., home of the ACC, on a regular basis. The ACC initially barked like a junkyard dog when it came to revenue sharing (Notre Dame would have to agree to equal sharing, NBC money, included -- or no deal), but it then rolled over and let the Fighting Irish pet its belly. Notre Dame gets to keep its NBC cash.

18. Notre Dame goes to Mayberry -- The End

Nobody should have needed smelling salts after last week's announcement. I've been writing for more than a year that the ACC and Notre Dame were eHarmony compatible.

[+] EnlargeLou Holtz
Photo/Joe RaymondNotre Dame hasn't won a national championship since Lou Holtz was leading the team.

The ACC and Notre Dame fit, for the most part, academically and athletically. And there's some cross-pollination between the two: the Duke AD was the former Notre Dame AD … the North Carolina AD is a Notre Dame grad and former Notre Dame associate AD … the Wake Forest president is a former Notre Dame provost whose three kids are Notre Dame grads … Swarbrick's son is a Wake Forest alum … ACC consigliere Gene Corrigan is a former Notre Dame AD and ACC commissioner. And Notre Dame's football schedule has long included some combo of ACC members (and soon to be members) Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

Is this why Notre Dame ditched the Big East for the ACC? Of course not. But relationships matter -- and Notre Dame had a growing relationship with the ACC.

There is going to be stress and tension with the new alliance. You can't have one level of membership for one school and another level of membership for everyone else without some tension. But it beats what Notre Dame had in the Big East. It beats what it had relative to non-BCS bowls.

This is a deal that strengthens the ACC and gives Notre Dame a dependable safety net. The ACC gave up, for now, its demand for full revenue sharing. Notre Dame gave up a significant piece of its precious independence.

Early in the next decade, ND will give up the rest of its football freedom. Instead of five ACC games, it will play a full nine-game league schedule. Its three nonconference games likely will include some combination of USC, Stanford and one of the service academies (give or take an occasional substitution). It will play in the same division as BC, Syracuse, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland and, who knows, maybe UConn.

That's my prediction, and I'm sticking by it.

Only one football scenario can keep Notre Dame from taking the full ACC football plunge: national championships.

If -- and we're talking about an "if" the size of defensive end Stephon Tuitt -- Notre Dame were to start announcing its football presence with authority (double-digit-win seasons, annual BCS playoff appearances, BCS championship parades in South Bend), there would be less incentive for Swarbrick to go all-in with the ACC. But, given its recent football history (ND hasn't won a national title since 1988, hasn't won one of the big four bowls since 1992, hasn't finished in the top five since 1993), don't expect the Fighting Irish to dominate again.

I'm not picking on Notre Dame here. It's hard for any program to dominate college football. Bama is on a roll, but it won't last forever.

The empire had a great run, but times change. At last, Notre Dame is changing with them.

17. Heisman Trophy race

Seated in the front row at Best Buy Theater:

• West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith -- Is he RG4? Does he become the second consecutive Big 12 QB winning the statuette? It could happen if Smith keeps this up. His numbers against FCS member James Madison were predictably ridiculous (34-of-39 for 411 yards and 5 TDs). And, guess what, he did it on the same FedEx Field as Robert Griffin III.

• UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin -- Another 100-plus-yard game for Franklin, another win for the Bruins.

• Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller -- If only Miller could play defense. Five total touchdowns against Cal, including the game-winning pass in the final minutes.

• Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas -- 222 all-purpose yards on just 10 touches (3 rushes, 62 yards, 1 TD … 3 catches, 73 yards, 1 TD … 4 punt returns, 21.8 average). Thomas is so fast he could run a 4.3 40 in a sack race.

Keep a coat and tie handy:

• Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson -- Robinson has worked his way back into Heisman consideration, thanks to boffo games against Air Force and UMass. But now he faces Notre Dame, which is tied for eighth in scoring defense and T-18 in total defense. If Robinson puts up another clunker like he did in the opener against Bama, I'm waving goodbye for good.

• Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- I'm impressed, but not completely convinced yet. A big night against Clemson will move Manuel into the front row.

Semi-sleepers:

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Kyle Terada/US PresswireMatt Barkley's Heisman candidacy took a serious hit with USC's loss to Stanford.

• Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones -- Rather than risk aggravating a groin injury, Jones sat out the game against Florida Atlantic. He'll be back this week (Vandy) for the first of seven consecutive SEC games.

• Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o -- He suffers the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend earlier in the week and somehow plays a football game -- and records 12 tackles, one fumble recovery and two pass breakups. Amazing.

• Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning -- Four TDs against Auburn and came thisclose to back-to-back upsets of SEC teams.

• USC quarterback Matt Barkley -- This one leaves a bruise mark. I'm a huge Barkley fan, but it's hard to ignore what happened at Stanford and, to a lesser extent, what happened the week before against Syracuse. Barkley didn't play terribly (O-line issues created by injuries and Stanford), but he didn't play like a guy who is a Heisman front-runner. Even USC coach Lane Kiffin openly questioned some of Barkley's game decisions.

• South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore -- Knee surgery? What knee surgery?

Thanks for stopping by the booth:

• Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas -- You had me, you lost me. Pittsburgh?

• Michigan State Le'Veon Bell -- He's good, really good. But the Spartans' offense isn't.

• Clemson running back Andre Ellington -- The touchdowns are nice, but having two sub-60-yard games makes it tough to keep him on the list.

16. Stat of the week

Four carries, 160 yards and two TDs for Cal running back Brendan Bigelow. And he did it at Ohio State and against a defense that was supposed to be the strength of the Buckeyes.

For the math impaired, that's a 40-yard average. And here's the nutty part: Bigelow was the third-string tailback and didn't get into the game until the second series of the third quarter.

Bigelow, a former high school track star who tore up his knee before the start of his senior year, had only six carries last season as a Cal true freshman. But he did play in 11 games as a kick returner.

15. BMOP (Big Man On Podium)

"Most likely. I think so."

-- Bigelow (as reported by the San Jose Mercury News), when asked whether he thought he would get more playing time this week.

Really? You think? If he doesn't get more carries at USC, Cal coach Jeff Tedford needs a cranial CT scan.

14. BMOP runner-up

"We kind of got basically humbled today."

-- USC linebacker Hayes Pullard (to the Los Angeles Times), on the Trojans' 21-14 loss at Stanford, their fourth consecutive defeat by the Cardinal.

13. USC -- now what?

Forget a national championship, USC isn't going to win the Pac-12 South Division if it keeps playing as if Traveler is calling formations.

Barkley was so un-Barkley-ish against Stanford that questions about the health of his throwing shoulder have bubbled to the surface. USC says he's fine, but the fact remains that Barkley has exactly zero completions of 50 or more yards since the opener against Hawaii and only one completion longer than 29 yards.

By the way, Barkley has the best pair of receivers in the country: Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

During Sunday's teleconference, Kiffin openly wondered about Barkley's decision-making on several throws in the Stanford game. He didn't do it to be cruel. It was as if he were as surprised as everyone else that Barkley was capable of Homer Simpson moments.

USC is a semi-surprising 17-point favorite at home against Cal on Saturday. The remainder of its schedule: at Utah, at Washington, Colorado, at Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State, at UCLA, Notre Dame.

With the exception of the CU game (the Buffs are beyond dreadful), there isn't a breather in the bunch. USC is good enough to win any of those games -- and inconsistent enough to lose them, too.

Stanford is no stiff, so I'm not quite sure why the Trojans did the rankings free fall after the road loss. But there's no denying that Barkley (0 TDs, 2 INTs vs. the Cardinal), the offensive line (it was a mess without injured fifth-year senior center Khaled Holmes) and the defense could use a cup of hot cocoa and a hug.

USC also might be the first top-15 team not to have a place-kicker on the roster. Check that -- the Trojans have one (Alex Wood), but Kiffin trusts him as far as he can kick him.

Wood is on the field because starter Andre Heidari is recovering from knee surgery. Oh, wait -- nobody is supposed to know that about Heidari. Kiffin's orders. Instead, I guess we were all supposed to think Heidari hadn't taken recent road trips with the team because he was afraid of, what, airplane food?

Anyway, the Trojans haven't attempted a field goal since the Sept. 1 opener against Hawaii. Wood kicks extra points, but apparently he has as much chance of kicking a 3-pointer as one of the Song Girls -- maybe less.

USC can recover. With a few breaks, the Trojans could even worm their way back into the national championship team photo. I'm not saying it's going to be easy, but it's possible.

12. The picks

There's no nice way of describing last week's picks. I stunk it up worse than Arkansas. I quit. I phoned it in. Tyler Wilson won't even look at me anymore.

First of all, I underestimated Stanford, Notre Dame and Missouri and overestimated Tennessee. I was a play away from getting it right with Louisiana-Monroe over Auburn. And I still don't know how a Pitt team that lost to Youngstown State and Cincinnati beat Virginia Tech. But it did, and that's why I stink.

A new week means new picks:

West Virginia over Maryland, TCU over Virginia, Florida over Kentucky, South Carolina over Mizzou, UCLA over Oregon State, USC over Cal, LSU over Auburn, Notre Dame over Michigan, Georgia over Vanderbilt, Oklahoma over Kansas State, Florida State over Clemson, Arizona State over Utah, Oregon over Arizona.

(Last week's record: 10-7. Overall: 42-12)

11. Why Vegas sends a limo for me

So much for my upset special, Arizona State over Mizzou on the road. Thought the Tigers would stay in a funk after the emotional home loss to Georgia in their SEC debut. They didn't. Good for them, bad for me.

This week's upset special process:

Thought Hard About: Utah over Arizona State (Utes are on the road, but they're also on a high after beating archrival BYU again) … Michigan over Notre Dame (Robinson rushed for 108 yards, passed for 338 yards in last year's Michigan win over the Domers) … Kansas State over Oklahoma (OU hasn't played anybody, K-State has).

Went With: BYU over Boise State.

Yes, the game is on Boise's blue carpet, but BYU is steamed about the weird loss to Utah. The Cougars will be properly motivated. And I like BYU's chances of putting up some points.

10. Kicking themselves

Utah State's Josh Thompson missed a last-second, game-winning, 37-yard field goal against Wisconsin.

BYU's Justin Sorensen and Riley Stephenson each missed game-tying field goals in the final second of the Cougars' game against Utah. (How is that possible? More about that later.)

Louisiana-Monroe's Justin Manton had two kicks blocked (a 31-yarder in the third quarter, a 37-yarder in overtime) in the 31-28 loss at Auburn.

USC doesn't even try field goals anymore. Trailing 14-7 in the third quarter against Stanford, Kiffin went for it on fourth-and-2 at the Cardinal 13 -- and Barkley's pass fell incomplete. Last season, USC had a total of 16 fourth-down conversion attempts. Through just three games of this season, Kiffin has already green-lighted 14 fourth-down tries. What does that tell you about how he feels about the Trojans' kicking game?

Stanford's Jordan Williamson went 0-for-3 on field goal tries against USC.

Thankfully, beleaguered Penn State kicker Sam Ficken was off the hook this week. The Nittany Lions won easily over Navy.

Anyway, the next time someone tries telling you that kickers don't matter, that they're -- and I'm borrowing part of a "Boardwalk Empire" line -- nothing more than a breadstick wearing a helmet, remember that Utah State, BYU and Louisiana-Monroe might still be undefeated if not for a missed field goal.

9. The rivalry that keeps giving

Utah and BYU, a rivalry that doesn't get the respect it deserves east of the Wasatch, is going away in 2014 and 2015. That's too bad because the 2012 version deserves an ESPYS nomination for Strangest Ending To A Game.

[+] EnlargeUtah Fans
Russ IsabellaThe third time was the charm for Utah fans to celebrate their team's win over BYU.

Consult your BYU-Utah play-by-play for all the details, but basically the Utes thought they had the game won long before the craziness unfolded.

If they stop BYU on fourth-and-12 from the Cougars' own 19-yard line, they win. Instead, BYU completed a 47-yard pass with about 10 seconds remaining.

If they stop BYU on a second-and-10 from the Utah 34, they win -- or so said the time clock. Instead, officials put one second back on the clock after a Nelson incompletion. Then they had to shoo Utah fans off the field.

If they survive Sorensen's last-second, 51-yard, tying field goal attempt, they win. Instead, Utah blocked the kick, but the Utes were assessed a 15-yard penalty because their fans rushed the field during the play.

If they survive Stephenson's 36-yarder with no time on the clock, they win.

And they did, when the ball caromed off the left upright at 11:58 p.m.

"If it goes to overtime, do we have to delay and go on Monday, or what?" said Utah coach (and BYU alum) Kyle Whittingham to reporters after the 24-21 victory.

Whittingham was referring to BYU, which, because of its Mormon doctrine, chooses not to play on Sundays. I think it's safe to say he wasn't serious. (But just in case, I contacted BYU officials, who said that, under the circumstances, the team would have completed the game. The school's policy is not to schedule games on Sundays.)

"We should be 4-1," Whittingham said of his 2-1 team. "We won that thing three times."

8. BMOC player of the week

The finalists: Cal's Bigelow, Notre Dame's Te'o, Ohio State's Miller, Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, Michigan's Robinson, Oregon's Thomas, Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, Texas quarterback David Ash, Pittsburgh running back Rushel Shell, Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews.

And the winner is … Te'o.

Given the personal tragedies he dealt with, Te'o's performance was nothing less than stunning.

7. BMOC coach of the week

The finalists: Western Kentucky's Willie Taggart (you mean not everybody goes for the OT win by using a lateral-then-throwback 2-point conversion play?), Pitt's Paul Chryst (Big Ten coaches know how good Chryst is), Florida's Will Muschamp (back-to-back wins at A&M and Tennessee), Penn State's Bill O'Brien (career win No. 1 is always the sweetest).

And the winner is … Muschamp.

6. BMOC flop of the week

The finalists: Kentucky (coach Joker Phillips, in his third season at UK, is taking some serious heat for a 1-2 start that includes losses to in-state Louisville and WKU), Virginia Tech (the Hokies were down 21-0 in the second quarter), Wisconsin (and the Badgers won!), Michigan State (in loss against Irish, flatter than Interstate 69), Arkansas (even its own injured quarterback ripped the noneffort against Bama).

And the flopper is … Virginia Tech.

5. Woo pig sooie

[+] EnlargeTyler Wilson
Beth Hall/US PresswireQuarterback Tyler Wilson didn't see action versus Alabama, but he had plenty to say after the game.

At Arkansas, there's the long-standing tradition of calling the Hogs. The school even provides detailed instructions on how to properly execute the Hog Call.

And then there's what injured quarterback Tyler Wilson did after Alabama vaporized Arkansas, 52-0, in Fayetteville. Wilson called out the Hogs.

"Do I feel that we, at times, gave up out there?" said Wilson, who is recovering from a head injury. "Absolutely."

He added: "As a leader, it sucks to see people not do their jobs and to see things go wrong. There has been a lot of things go that way."

Later, while channeling his inner Tebow, Wilson vowed to keep the team together during this football crisis.

Arkansas can still salvage this season. The Razorbacks weren't going to beat Bama with or without Wilson. But the middle part of their schedule (Rutgers, at Texas A&M, at Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tulsa) contains some opportunities for wins.

Now we find out whether the Razorbacks are going to follow Wilson, or phone it in under interim coach John L. Smith.

4. If there were a playoff

(And there will be in two more years …)

Shoulder Pad Bracket:

Alabama vs. LSU

Otherwise known as Nov. 3 in Baton Rouge.

Chin Strap Bracket:

Georgia vs. Florida

Otherwise known as Oct. 27 in Jacksonville.

3. Big Ten, big problems

I tried, I really did, to defend the Big Ten a week ago. Said it wasn't as bad as it looked. Said there was still hope for the conference. Said the top of the league still had potential to make national noise.

But, after another Saturday of scores that made you rub your eyes in disbelief, it really is as bad as it looks.

There isn't a Big Ten team ranked in the top 15 of the AP poll or the top 16 of the coaches' poll. There isn't a signature win. There isn't a team capable of making (and eligible to make) a national championship run this season.

Ohio State is 3-0 but is ineligible for the postseason, and it just gave up 512 total yards and 28 points at home against Cal.

Northwestern and Minnesota are unbeaten, but neither is ranked in the two polls (though, I had the Wildcats at No. 25 in the power rankings I submit to ESPN.com each week).

Wisconsin, which has beaten Northern Iowa and Utah State by a combined seven points, is somehow ranked 24th in the coaches' poll -- which just goes to show the coaches don't pay attention. Oregon State, the team that beat the Badgers, remains unranked.

With the exception of Michigan's game at Notre Dame, this is basically Cupcake Saturday for Big Ten teams. Only the Wolverines face a ranked team.

2. Two-liners

A win is a win, but Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema isn't painting happy faces on the recent victory against Utah State. He didn't bother awarding a weekly offensive MVP, saying, "There was improvement on that side of the ball, but just nothing that we feel we could win with on a consistent basis [in] Big Ten play." … According to the Notre Dame weekly media release, the Irish are one of only three FBS programs that have never scheduled a non-FBS team. The other two: USC and UCLA. … Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes, the first-year starter who helped keep the win streak against USC alive (four, and counting), heard from the guy he replaced. Nunes' dad, Tim, told me that Andrew Luck "and hundreds of others" texted Josh after the victory.

1. The BMOC Top 10

No. 10: Oklahoma (2-0)
Next: Kansas State.
A revealing stretch of games for the Sooners after the bye week: K-State on Saturday, at Texas Tech after another bye week, then the Red River Rivalry against Texas at the angioplasty capital of the country: the Cotton Bowl during the State Fair of Texas.

No. 9: South Carolina (3-0)
Next: Missouri.
Backup quarterback Dylan Thompson wins another one as the Gamecocks approach the fleshy part of their schedule: Mizzou this week, then Kentucky (OK, that's not so hard), followed by Georgia, at LSU, at Florida.

No. 8: Florida State (3-0)
Next: Clemson.
Seminoles have outscored two FCS programs and Wake Forest by a combined 176-3. Are they really that good? Unbeaten Clemson will tell us for sure.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesTennessee Tech actually led 7-0 versus Oregon until the Ducks ripped off 49 straight.

No. 7: Oregon (3-0)
Next: Arizona.
FCS member Tennessee Tech actually led the Ducks 7-0 in Saturday's game. Then Oregon scored the next 49 points in less than 32 minutes.

No. 6: LSU (3-0)
Next: at Auburn.
After the War Eagles barely avoided an 0-3 start, will LSU be tempted to look ahead to Sept. 29 game against Towson?

No. 5: Notre Dame (3-0)
Next: Michigan.
Can an inside linebacker win a Heisman Trophy? Te'o is going to try. He played inspired football against Michigan State and did so with a heavy, heavy heart.

No. 4: Stanford
Next: at Washington, Sept. 27.
The Cardinal could barely beat San Jose State in the season opener. But they beat USC for a fourth consecutive year -- and without Andrew Luck. Now Stanford has to avoid a letdown at U-Dub.

No. 3: Florida (3-0)
Next: Kentucky.
Big-boy win at Texas A&M. Big-boy win at Tennessee. On consecutive Saturdays. And without some injured starters. Impressive road victories by the gutty little Gators.

No. 2: Georgia (3-0)
Next: Vanderbilt.
Highlight of Saturday's 56-20 win against Florida Atlantic? Interim mascot Russ was elevated to pooch royalty. He officially became Uga IX.

No. 1: Alabama (3-0)
Next: Florida Atlantic.
The Tide's second- and third-teamers (and even the walk-ons) must be loving September so far. Lots of minutes for the backups when you beat Michigan, Western Kentucky and Arkansas by a combined 128-14. And now comes FAU, which is going to think that 36-point loss to Georgia was spring break.

(Five on the fringe: USC, Clemson, Texas, Kansas State, UCLA.)

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter