The Times' Super Sweet 16 countdown: No. 16 Notre Dame

The Times' Super Sweet 16 countdown: No. 16 Notre Dame
Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly, right, talks with quarterback Everett Golson as the Irish players stretch before practice on Saturday. ** Usable by LA, DC, CGT and CCT Only ** (Joe Raymond / Associated Press)

Acknowledging that college football's new four-team playoff could some day inch toward a larger basketball-style tournament, we begin our Super Sweet 16 countdown today, with No. 16 Notre Dame:

In the seedy years before Brian Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, the football was phony but the grass was real.


Now it's the opposite.

Kelly has guided the Fighting Irish to four straight winning seasons for the first time since a 12-year win streak ended in 1999.

The only polystyrene now is the new artificial turf that has replaced the hallowed bentgrass, often grown out like a hippie's hair depending on the speed at tailback coming into South Bend, Ind.

Who could forget that comb-the-area search for diminutive USC star Reggie Bush in 2005?

Putting fake grass in Notre Dame Stadium is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but nothing seems sacred anymore, including the Irish's once progressively mysterious pattern of winning national titles: 1966, 1977, 1988.

Notre Dame came up short in 1999, going 5-7, and continues searching for that elusive crown that makes Irish tradition what it is, or was.

Notre Dame came close two years ago with a 12-0 regular-season run that included several breathless, late-game pullouts, yet ended with a blowout loss to Alabama in the national title game.

Last season's reload was seriously disrupted by the academic expulsion of star quarterback Everett Golson, who would have been a sophomore on a team stacked with title-level talent.

Golson is a difference-maker player and might have made a difference last year on a team that finished 9-4.

Golson is back on campus, reportedly in good graces, trying to win his job back on a team that lost about half its starters.

Kelly made it clear he isn't handing anything back to Golson by announcing the quarterback position was open for competition.

Kelly even underplayed Golson's contribution to the 2012 undefeated run to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

"I would argue Everett rode the bus to the championship," Kelly said.

Kelly is pushing Golson with his effusive talk about redshirt freshman Malik Zaire, a dual-threat, four-star recruit.


Really, what does Golson have over Zaire except beating Oklahoma and USC and 10 other teams in 2012?

"I think Malik has the ability to play winning football for us," Kelly said.

Notre Dame is probably a year away from making a serious run at the new four-team playoff but appears to be set up solidly for the new era.

Kelly is proud of his four straight winning seasons but is looking for staying power.

"You don't want to have an undefeated season and then just have winning seasons," Kelly said. "You want to be part of the national conversation."

Kelly is working to sustain a level where losing players early to the NFL becomes a badge of honor.

"Everybody has lost really good players," he said. "Alabama loses them. LSU loses them every year. Florida State loses them."

What Notre Dame has over most other power programs is a schedule that doesn't quit. It was the reason the Irish shot to the top two years ago even after starting the season unranked in the Associated Press poll.

Notre Dame's football independence (note: the Irish do have a working relationship with the Atlantic Coast Conference) bulletproofs the program from ever getting dragged down by a weak conference.

The Irish enter 2014 with, arguably, the nation's toughest schedule. The 13-person selection committee will pick Notre Dame up at the playoff airport if it navigates a schedule that includes Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

There are more Division I teams now, 128, but four playoff spots instead of two.

"We have got to have a serious shot at getting one of those four," Kelly said.

You heard it hear first: Notre Dame is getting serious again.