Bobby Petrino and his Louisville Cardinals will head to South Bend this weekend for the first time in history. With them, they'll bring a program whose most recent success may very well be its best stretch ever. And when they take the field in front of a packed Notre Dame Stadium, they'll take on a program whose incredible past packs a much more potent punch than its present.
It's interesting how these two programs stack up against each other, because one (Louisville) has always had to claw for a hair of respect, where the other (Notre Dame) has almost always been entitled to it until proven otherwise.
Brian Kelly's 2014 Notre Dame team, like many that have come recently before it, is a good team that represents a great tradition. It's easy to confuse these two things, because it's impossible to argue with the prolific history that goes along with the Fighting Irish name. Maybe that's why it's all the more important to distinguish between the two.
Everything about the Irish is iconic. They're the only independent football program that consistently means anything. Because of this independence, you can watch them on national television every week. They are their own brand in every sense of the phrase. They have helmets adorned with real gold. You likely know the tune of "Victory March" whether you want to or not. They're the winningest program in the history of the college game, and that gives them a certain amount of claim to something.
For the last two decades, though, Notre Dame football has meant something entirely different than its rightfully distinguished tradition suggests. Lou Holtz retired after the 1996 season, and with him left a sustained Irish tradition of excellence, at least where it really counts (on the field).
From 1994 to 2008, the Irish either didn't go to a bowl game (1996, '99, 2001, '03, '04, '07) or didn't win the one they did go to. In the two decades since 1994, Notre Dame has won three bowl games and has achieved a double-digit win total three times. Of those three seasons with 10 wins or more, none have ended in a bowl victory.
Sure, it's absolutely fair to point out that the 2012 Irish (12-1) were completely overmatched by a battle-tested Alabama in the BCS title game. And yes, it made sense that the 2007 team (10-2) was demolished by a similarly rugged LSU team. Maybe the 2003 Irish (10-3) just faced an especially tough NC State Wolfpack when they were blown out in that year's Gator Bowl. After all, it was Philip Rivers.
Therein lies the important distinction. Notre Dame does deserve credit for almost always being a good or very good team, but they haven't been great for almost 20 years. For parts of that period, they have even been fairly bad. Their history, tradition and hordes of devoted fans always have been and always will be among the best in college football, but they've fallen behind on the field fairly consistently. And when they've reached a national stage in January, they haven't shown up to the occasion since the early 1990s.
Regardless of this, Notre Dame's tradition and all that surrounds it has always helped them on the field for some mysterious reason. The Irish are always given credit for something until they absolutely prove (sometimes it even takes a few tries) that they are not worthy of it. I remember one Saturday morning a few years ago when ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said something to the effect that Notre Dame's football tradition had shifted from being a powerhouse to being fairly mediocre, and he was right.
Obviously, Herbstreit was speaking about the whole picture. Last year's Notre Dame team was far from bad or even average, as was the team before it that reached the National Championship game undefeated. Brian Kelly has brought a considerable measure of national relevance back to the program.
Which brings us to this season. Notre Dame lost close at Florida State, which led many to believe that they still belonged in the upper echelon. ESPN's Colin Cowherd even put the Irish in his top four after the loss. Since then, an all-too-familiar act has followed. Notre Dame struggled mightily against Navy and was demolished by Arizona State before falling at home to Northwestern.
Now, they'll host Louisville, which has weathered its first ACC season with some ups and downs but is eager to leave storied Notre Dame Stadium with a victory. The Cardinals have not made it easy this season, but they've grown through it and figure to be up to the task that the Fighting Irish will present.
Saturday will still be a historic moment for Louisville football in that it's the first time they've played Notre Dame, the best program in history. Off the field, all of the allure is still there, and that makes the game even more fun to think about. That shouldn't be completely discounted.
That allure is exactly what Notre Dame is counting on, though, because when it comes to earning victories on the field, their wonderful tradition and history won't be able to help them. They'll have to be up to the task presented by Louisville between the lines, and that is what should truly make Cardinal fans excited to be in South Bend this weekend.