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Nations: Fighting Irish back on the map

Jeff Nations

By Jeff Nations

Just to dispense with this from the start -- for more than a couple decades now, give or take, I've been what you might call an SEC fan -- or enthusiast, or supporter, or whatever.

The point is, I was raised that way. My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool Ole Miss fan, I grew up in Kentucky -- which actually makes me at best an auxiliary member of the SEC fan club, as far as football goes -- and that upbringing brought with it some lasting lessons.

First, the SEC is the only conference worth watching during college football season. An SEC fan must, in no particular order:

• Despise the Big 10;

• Pity the ACC;

• Disparage the Pac-10;

• Ignore all other conferences, including what used to be the Big Eight.

Oh yeah, and hate Notre Dame. That was a big one around my household, too. I can remember, vividly and on numerous occasions, watching a 1980s-circa Notre Dame football game on television with my dad, and invariably having the Fighting Irish's consistently dirty, nefarious, and downright obnoxious play pointed out time and again by my outraged father.

Whether those instances were cherry-picked, I can only surmise, but the message sunk in and took root. Any time I watch Notre Dame on TV, no matter the opponent, I'm rooting against the Irish.

Except, this year I haven't. For reasons I can't explain -- other than Notre Dame's ridiculous network deal with NBC (another source of much grousing) -- I have watched more than a couple games this year. I'll admit, I was pulling for Pitt in full SEC-fan savagery before the Fighting Irish escaped in overtime. But other than that lapse, I've remained remarkably neutral regarding Notre Dame this season.

I was content to just wait for the inevitable loss to come; Notre Dame, unranked in the preseason and decades removed from those powerhouse days when only Army and Navy could challenge the primacy of the Fighting Irish, was bound to trip up.

But they didn't, and I'm glad. The fact is, I've missed Notre Dame -- the great Notre Dame, I mean. The Notre Dame that I relished rooting against, teams featuring the likes of Tim Brown, Jerome Bettis and Raghib Ismail, seemed gone and never to return as recently as last season.

Sure, bringing in Brian Kelly looked like a nice move after the trifecta of disasters that were Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, but it seemed that no one could restore the luster to frigid South Bend, Ind. Annoyingly high academic standards and a less-than-alluring locale seemed to have turned Notre Dame into something of a college football dinosaur.

For awhile, that was fun.

Having an SEC team face Notre Dame in the BCS national championship game will be even more fun.

Here's another confession for you -- whether it's Alabama or Georgia (especially Alabama), I'm rooting for Notre Dame.

Even as an aforementioned auxiliary member of the SEC fan club due to Kentucky's consistently abysmal efforts on the gridiron, I have enjoyed a considerable degree of satisfaction in the SEC's unrivaled dominance of college football over the past decade or so. Seeing Alabama, and LSU, and Auburn, and Florida, and even Tennessee as recently as 1998, win national championships has simply been an affirmation of what any longtime SEC fan knew from the start -- no other conference comes close.

And now that needs to end.

Here's my issue -- when Kansas State and Oregon fell from the ranks of the unbeatens late this season, the first one-loss team -- automatically -- to jump back into the national championship game was Alabama. And by facing the Crimson Tide in the upcoming SEC championship game, one-loss Georgia is along for the ride. Why is that? Reputation, I guess.

Look at Georgia's schedule -- the SEC East isn't exactly fearsome from top to bottom, yet Georgia still felt it necessary to take breathers with games against Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and Georgia Southern. The Dawgs even managed to miss playing Alabama and LSU this season and still blew a perfect season with a blowout loss to South Carolina, leaving me to believe that is one puffed-up record. But beat Alabama, and Georgia is the choice to play Notre Dame for the national championship.

Alabama didn't exactly face murder's row this season, either. The season-opening blowout of Michigan looked impressive at the time, not so much now. And the Crimson Tide stocked their non-conference schedule with the likes of Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic (they should get honorary SEC membership) and Western Carolina. And the Crimson Tide still managed to lose -- at home -- to SEC West newcomer Texas A&M, a school one year removed from middling status in the Big 12.

The hype machine is propelling the SEC forward full-tilt these days, merit or no. For the good of college football -- heck, for the SEC -- I'm hoping for a Notre Dame national championship to make my conference get back to its leaner, hungrier days.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>


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