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Plenty of Notre (Sh)ame, To Go Around...By Nelson Lardner

Fool us once, shame on you.

Fool anyone, nine times? Well, that's no longer the fault of those casting the illusions.

Third weekend in December, I'm in Vegas, minding my own business. John Kelly had asked me to fill in on the panel on the Leroy's Sunday-night radio show on the local ESPN outlet, at the Riviera, so off we went. The Rebels were hooping it up that and night, so Kelly, Dave Cokin, and I didn't get started until 10 PM, Pacific - 'way past an Eastern boy's bedtime, but so it goes.

After busily carving up the NFL like a Christmas goose the opening hour, enjoying many laughs, we segued to the college bowls, for the second hour. The group assignment? Touch on all 32 Division 1-A bowl matchups. Okayyyyyyyyy . . . and off we went.

Though I couldn't have cared less about half the matchups, there was still much worthwhile discussion. Kelly likes to coax free selections from his guests on these presentations for his hosts of loyal listeners, and pressed me for a trio of bowl picks. I snapped them off, in chronological order - San Jose State, Minnesota . . . and LSU.

Ah, the Bayou Bengals. "You know," I began, "the Wall Street Journal has been running this line of jive recently about how the national softness in the housing market is unlikely to portend a national recession. You know, the 'This time, it's DIFFERENT' con.

"Yeah, sure it is . . . just like Charlie Weis saying the approach against Ohio State last year didn't work out, and he was looking to extend the amount of time he was going to use in implementing his game plan for LSU, and that would leave the players more relaxed, and things should be . . . different." Riiiiiight.

"Well, guess again, Charlie . . . it's NOT going to change anything, because LSU's skill people are far too fast for your overmatched secondary, and when LSU needs the deep pass, it's going to be there. How many times do we have to SEE this movie?"

I got fairly worked up over this . . . more than I was ever ruffled Wednesday night. Not going to rehash the game timeline - most or all of you saw it, and it would be a waste of time - but I will refer to certain glaring aspects, in support of the points I'm going to make.

LSU/Notre Dame was one of the greatest affirmations of fundamental football handicapping techniques you're likely to witness in your lifetime. Insufficiencies in the Irish secondary? Check. Dame's inability to cope with LSU's quick, athletic secondary? Check. Brady Quinn malfunctioning under likely pressure? Check. Irish running game put in the deep freeze once forced to play from behind? Check . . . and DOUBLE-check! The End. Drive home safely, and remember, the Irish have lost nine straight bowls, and counting.

I could readily see this, yet I'm a situational/technical-handicapping kind of guy . . . so I had to resist the allure of a touchdown-plus dog with a proven offense, off a bad game . . . off a bowl loss the previous year . . . against a fat favorite, playing what could be largely construed as a "home" game (LSU in the Superdome, for heaven's sake . . . ) fraught with potential distractions. I ignored all this - BECAUSE NOTRE DAME, DUE TO ITS UNIQUE POSITION, CONSTANTLY FINDS ITSELF IN TOP-PAYING BOWLS WHICH CONSISTENTLY ATTRACT STRONGER OPPONENTS THAN THE IRISH CAN REASONABLY DEAL WITH IN THEIR PREVAILING STATE.

EVERYTHING stems from this fountain of unfiltered truth.

Because they're Notre Dame, their singular BCS exemption gets the Irish kissed into games such as this . . . games they can no longer win, on a neutral or a foreign field.

Give Dame all the credit in the world . . . they're striving to do things the right way. But the last period of time Dame could consistently function at the highest level was the Lou Holtz era, source of their last national champions, the 1988 edition which went undefeated and picked off West Virginia in the Fiesta, behind QB Tony Rice. They followed that win up by losing but nine games in the next five seasons, but then the cracks began to show. The academic demands from Notre Dame's "front office" became more strict . . . no more Tony Rices. And it showed. After three more years, Holtz was gone, Bob Davie stepped in, and the merry-go-round broke down.

Wednesday night dredged up memories of the 1991 Sugar Bowl, in which the Irish hooked Florida. A parallel scenario in a lotta ways, but with a singular, critical difference: while Coach Holtz's kids lost to Michigan, Tennessee, and Penn State, that secondary was sufficiently talented to aid in the upending of the heavily-favored Gators by double digits. They would bend - but they wouldn't break if a good team simply stared at 'em.

Stiffened academics make it SO much tougher to compete, even for Notre Dame, in this era of reduced scholarship numbers. The biggest of the state schools whose programs have endured any occasional tempests and have come through stronger, with strong coaching staffs and sharp recruiters, will win the vast majority of the numbers games. Look at Ohio State, Michigan, LSU, Florida, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Wisconsin . . . vicious competition for the same difference-making athletes. More than half of those institutions can be legitimate national title contenders in the right year, if the dice fall their way.

Boston College and Navy boasted the best academic graduation results among this year's 64 bowl teams. Both are admirable institutions with solid football structures . . . but you'll get old before you see either win a national championship in football, because their academic requirements are simply too stiff to assure access to top athletes at critical positions.

Nothing wrong with the hail, hailers . . . there's still plenty to admire about the program. But with a leveled playing field due to wider distribution of talent, and with the academic handcuffs on Cheeseburger Charlie . . . those expecting the Rockne/Leahy days to return will have a long wait.

Nelson Lardner

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