At risk of being a little bit unfair to former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, I don’t think he will be remembered for his lasting contributions to college football. A textbook case in overpromising and underdelivering, Weis flamed out hard at Notre Dame, kicking things off with back-to-back BCS bowl appearances in his first two seasons followed shortly by the program’s worst season in living memory and two more years of futile mediocrity. Sure, there were the occasional bright moments (Quinn to Samardzija will never get old, and Golden Tate’s swan dive into the Michigan State band is one of those iconic college football-isms that always brings a smile), he’ll always be the first coach to lose to Navy in four decades, the guy that lost to UConn at home, the guy that could not beat Southern Cal if they were a couple of farm-fresh eggs. While the program’s been through worse (50s anyone?), almost every Notre Dame fan alive would rather forget about Charlie Weis.
But he’ll always be remembered for unintentionally dubbing bye weeks as “Cheeseburger Week.”
In what was surely meant to be an offhand remark about being passed in the polls by a team that didn’t play a game that week, Weis mentioned that the Irish had been upstaged by a team that was “sitting around eating cheeseburgers.” Notre Dame fans have since run with the concept, referring to the need mid-season breaks (for team and fanbase) as “Cheeseburger Week”. Whether or not actual cheeseburgers are consumed (and I’ll go on record as recommending that they are), Cheeseburger Week is a time to sit back, destress from the season a little, and enjoy the sport without the stress of an active rooting interest. It’s also a fine time to take stock of the season to date and see where things might go from here.
So where are we as a football program?
In the offseason, Notre Dame fully anticipated being 3-1 at the end of September, a hopefully valiant but probably losing effort in Columbus followed by two stress free wins at home and a winnable road test against a good team, but one that Notre Dame has pounded for two straight years now. Instead, we sit at 2-2, and for much of the month it felt like the sky was caving in.
What a difference a game makes in college football.
I’ve long maintained that the healthiest approach to fandom, especially college football fandom, is not to expect a championship every year. Just look at it mathematically — there are 131 FBS football teams, of which only one can win it all. It’s easy to forget that winning championships is damn hard, because somehow a team manages to do it every year.
It’s long been one of college football strengths that it recognizies the odds of any given team winning a title, and provides other things to root for and other measures of success baked in to the sport’s landscape. Bowl games, rivalries, heck even getting eligible for a bowl marks success for some teams. And, as games are played and we get to know the ins and outs of teams better, what success means evolves. A team that looked awful in preseason gets on a hot streak, and suddenly anything under 9 wins looks bad. Conversely… you have Notre Dame this year.
Any dreams of greatness for this Notre Dame team died with about 5 minutes to play against Marshall. Even if the Irish had found their way out of that particular jam, it was clear at that point this was not a playoff team. Just wasn’t built for a playoff run. But that doesn’t mean the year can’t be a success. As we sit now, at 2-2 and no clear game that isn’t winnable on the table — yes, BYU, Clemson, and USC will all be tough and the rest of the schedule’s no slouch — the Irish could rally, make a New Year’s Six bowl, and maybe even win the thing. (If the Irish play like North Carolina Notre Dame and not Marshall Notre Dame, that is.) Do I think that will happen? Not really, but it could. And there’s not a single Notre Dame fan that wouldn’t have taken that year on the evening of September 10th.
So — say it with me now — Notre Dame will not win the national title this year, and that’s ok. Notre Dame will not win the national title this year, and that’s ok. A season can still be a success without a particular trophy, or any trophy. If the team looks better week-to-week (so far so good!) and builds a solid foundation for the future (still tbd), that can be a perfectly fine season with a new head coach, second-string quarterback, and a matchstick wide receiver room. Even falling short of the (now) dream of an NY6 bowl above, making a decent bowl against a quality opponent and winning would be a success and momentum. Just look at the 2017 Notre Dame team from my freshman year — nobody was fawning over the Citrus Bowl, but that served as the foundation for two playoff appearances in two years and was the first of five straight years of 10+ wins. That’s success, any way you slice it.
And also… just imagine if this team rolls up to the Coliseum on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and knocks USC out of the playoff. Oh man. The stuff dreams are made of.
On the subject of appreciating the non-championship-chasing parts of sport, how ’bout them Kansas Jayhawks?!
Kansas has been widely acknowledged as the worst team in a major conference for over a decade. After a run of a few decent seasons in the later half of the 2000s, even reaching the Orange Bowl one year, the Jayhawks took a nose dive following the departure of head coach Mark Mangino. At a school where basketball will always be king, and deservedly so, the Jayhawks didn’t have a lot of oxygen left for football at the Power Five level. In a conference where Oklahoma and Texas dominate the gridiron, the Jayhawks never could move up in the pecking order. A string of bad coaching hires compounded the situation. This included the unfortunate decision to hire one Charlie Weis, formerly of Notre Dame, noted cheeseburger enthusiast. Weis gutted the roster, attempting to rebuild it with junior college transfers in some weird version of an NFL free agency season. It left Kansas well under the scholarship limit for years, and it’s hard to field a competitive team with that kind of roster. It showed. It’s taken Kansas, much like it took their former coach’s other former employer, nearly a decade to climb out of the hole Weis (though hardly Weis alone) helped create.
The Jayhawks now sit 5-0, fresh off a field storming after a thrilling victory over conference rival Iowa State (who themselves are stuck in a perpetual limbo — theirs is never quite matching lofty expectations). It is their best start in 13 years. It is their first time ranked among the top 25 teams in the nation in the same length of time. Kansas will not win the national title this year, and likely will not even come close. But for now, they are the toast of the sport. Stories like Kansas make this sport so captivating.
Kansas now gets the (admittedly dubious) honor of hosting College GameDay, ESPN’s college football pregame show. For those who haven’t had the misfortune, GameDay is a little bit like the tail end of a three-hour social media binge crossed with a B-grade circus, topped with a heaping spoonful of corporate egocentrism. Played as basically a three-hour commercial for a product that everyone watching the thing was going to partake in anyway, GameDay serves little purpose outside of ESPN tooting its own horn. It surely doesn’t excite college football fans for the days games any more than they already were, and mostly gives its core cast a platform to bloviate. (DID YOU KNOW Desmond Howard won the Heisman? DID YOU? Let’s remind everyone again, shall we?) On the rare occasion one of the personalities at the show’s heart makes a salient point, it’s already been covered to death by sportswriters, bloggers, Twitter, or ESPN’s suite of other shows and podcasts. Nothing new is ever said on College GameDay, if anything is ever really said at all. I’ll confess I used to be a somewhat avid GameDay watcher in my younger and more vulnerable years, but once the shtick wore off, I decided that sleeping in on Saturday mornings was generally a better use of my time. The show is simultaneously too staged to be taken as authentic, and too goofy to be taken seriously. It tries in vain to replicate the mayhem of a college football Saturday as an appetizer to the meat of the day’s several main courses of games.
But you can’t script college football mayhem. It must happen naturally, like the worst power program in the country suddenly starting 5-0. That’s the good stuff right there, not whatever over-produced pablem that will come out during the show to celebrate it.
The only redeeming thing about GameDay is that it showcases the host institution. This isn’t particularly exciting when it goes to a place like Alabama or Ohio State, but when it travels to a place off the beaten football path, the host campus often goes wild. For years, Washington State fans openly campaigned for a visit, before finally getting one. There wasn’t enough Fireball in the town of Pullman. Just a week ago, they went to Appalachian State, one of the best non-power teams this century and victors in the greatest college football upset of all time. They went nuts. It’s exciting for universities, especially one that don’t have widely known academic or athletic brands, to get a three hour national showcase. And now it’s Kansas’ turn. Kansas has never hosted GameDay before, because Kansas football has never justified it. Now they have. Gonna be a heck of a show.
So long live Kansas football. In a year where Kansas is closer to bowl eligibility to Notre Dame, college football reminds us that anything is possible, and appreciating the unlikely is always worthwhile. And if Kansas can start 5-0, surely Notre Dame can rally from its shaky start to win a respectable number of games this year. Right?
Have a cheeseburger while we look towards a brighter future.
Leave a Reply