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Posted: Sunday November 8, 2009 11:17PM; Updated: Wednesday November 11, 2009 10:00AM
Stewart Mandel

Notre Dame is no longer different than other programs of its type

Story Highlights

Stanford and Northwestern are rising, while Notre Dame's struggles continue

If the Irish make a coaching change, will it be Cincinnati's Brian Kelly?

Poll voters are punishing Oregon for a loss without accounting for context

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Golden Tate and Notre Dame have three games left to salvage their season.
John Biever/SI

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As institutions, Stanford, Northwestern and Notre Dame have a lot in common. All are academically renowned private schools with Division I-A football programs. When the NCAA released its most recent Graduation Success Rate data, all three boasted four-year scores of 95 percent or higher

On the field, however, the Cardinal and Wildcats haven't always been in the same league as the Fighting Irish. The latest example of this came Saturday. Both Stanford (against No. 7 Oregon) and Northwestern (at No. 8 Iowa) knocked off Top 10 opponents, a feat Notre Dame has not accomplished since the second game of head coach Charlie Weis' tenure in 2005.

Proud Domers would surely scoff at any comparison between their beloved Irish and the historically second-class squads in Evanston and Palo Alto, but is there really that much difference between the three programs these days? All three sport six victories this season. Northwestern just became bowl eligible for the third straight season (compared with two for the Irish) and sixth time in seven years (five for Notre Dame). Stanford had been in rebuilding mode but now appears headed in the right direction thanks in part (see if this sounds familiar) to a gifted 6-foot-4 drop-back passer.

"Even though we're similar academically, we're in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We've been consistently winning since 1995. They're still saying they can do it, but we're doing it."


Granted, neither the Cardinal nor Wildcats have the Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus or Rudy. What they do have is a pair of charismatic young coaches -- Stanford's Jim Harbaugh and Northwestern's Fitzgerald -- who have stabilized their programs and energized their fan bases.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is into Year Three of the Weis hot-seat debate. Following the Irish's second straight home loss to former punching bag Navy, another round of speculation over his future figures to only intensify over the next three weeks. Irish fans expect BCS bowls, but with road games remaining at 8-1 Pittsburgh and 6-3 Stanford, it's going to be a challenge just to get eight wins.

Notre Dame's failure to return to the realm of national elite remains puzzling to many considering the Irish's multitude of perceived advantages -- their tradition, their national television contract, a series of recruiting classes that, according to analysts, rank right up there with national powers like Ohio State and Alabama. No objective observer would contest that Weis has a core of elite skill players in quarterback Jimmy Clausen, receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

But a high-powered offense only gets you so far. The Irish racked up 512 yards against Navy and may well have won if not for two red-zone turnovers by Clausen. But the junior quarterback has had to carry his team all season thanks to a defense that ranks 79th nationally and gave up 348 rushing yards to the Midshipmen. Don't let the or star-system fool you; Notre Dame does not stockpile athletic defenders like Florida or USC and probably never will.

In that respect, the Irish aren't that different from Stanford, which rode a pair of stud skill players, quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Toby Gerhart, in its 51-42 shootout victory over the Ducks; or Northwestern, which for years has employed a high-powered spread offense to remain competitive in the Big Ten. The Irish have churned out a handful of star defenders in recent years, guys like Justin Tuck, Chinedum Ndukwe, Trevor Laws and Victor Abiamiri -- but so, too, have the Wildcats. Corey Wootton, the defensive end whose end-zone sack and forced fumble of Ricky Stanzi changed the course of Saturday's Iowa game, will likely follow in the NFL footsteps of Barry Cofield, Luis Castillo and Napolean Harris.

The difference between Northwestern/Notre Dame and USC or Florida is the Trojans and Gators turn out that many prospects every year. The difference between the Wildcats and Irish is the former holds no delusions about becoming the next USC or Florida. With a record of 6-4, 3-3 in the Big Ten, Northwestern sits in fifth place in the conference. Judging by its narrow wins over 5-5 Michigan State and 4-6 Purdue and its loss to 5-5 Michigan, Notre Dame would probably sit around the same spot if it were a member of that conference.

Fitzgerald was an All-America linebacker on the Wildcats' 1995 and '96 Big Ten title teams. While the school has yet to produce another team on the level of those squads, its current level of consistency is unprecedented. Saturday's Iowa win likely assured its fifth bowl trip this decade; it had played in three its entire previous history.

"People outside the program would always say that Northwestern might win games for a couple of years, but to win consistently would be very difficult to achieve," said Fitzgerald. ... "We've proved that's not the case. And we're having all this success without sacrificing what we stand for as a university."

Stanford's history is closer to Notre Dame's than Northwestern's. The school of Bill Walsh, Jim Plunkett and John Elway has played in 12 Rose Bowls, though its last appearance came 10 years ago. Harbaugh took over the program in 2007 after it had bottomed out under predecessors Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris and injected a much-needed dose of energy.

Despite dealing with some of the most stringent admissions requirements in the country, Harbaugh has been able to land nationally coveted prospects like Texans Luck and running back Stepfan Taylor. He's currently working on his second straight Top 20 recruiting class and has the Cardinal back in the upper half of the Pac-10.

In three years, he's built his program to about the same place Weis has in five. (We'll find out definitively when their teams meet Nov. 28.)

"[The Oregon win] was the best opportunity that Stanford football has had in the past 10 years to express who this team is, and they expressed it," said Harbaugh. "Who would not like to watch this team play? Is there a better show around?"

Notre Dame gets showcase opportunities nearly every week and has yet to take advantage. While the aerial-minded Irish can be fun to watch, they're more often aggravating. It's been that way for 15 years; only now their games are at least entertaining.

If Notre Dame does decide to make a change at season's end, perhaps the school will look to Stanford and Northwestern as models. At least we know those programs are on the rise. Admittedly, they have a ceiling, but so, too, does Notre Dame.

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