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Notre Dame has high expectations and a lot to prove

Notre Dame has high expectations and a lot to prove
Notre Dame football players loosen up during a training camp practice on Aug. 7. (Joe Raymond / Associated Press)

The Times' annual college football countdown continues its march forward toward No. 1 with our pick for No. 17.

The power of Notre Dame never ceases to intoxicate, please, annoy and amaze.

Confession: we media-types are all guilty of using the Irish's needle-mover to further our own agendas.

If Brigham Young hasn't learned by now, there is only one football independent with the gravitas to go it alone, with its own network, in a college football sea of sinners.

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This summer offers a perfect example, with Notre Dame popping up in preseason top-10 lists from Lindy's to Sports Illustrated.

It seems like only yesterday USC drilled Notre Dame last Nov. 29 at the Coliseum. The score was 49-14 but it wasn't that close. Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler threw six touchdown passes, five in the first half, and completed 80% of his passes for 372 yards.

Eight-win Notre Dame returns a promising young quarterback, Malik Zaire, who replaced starter Everett Golson in the USC game and completed nine of 20 passes for 170 yards.

USC returns … Kessler.

That didn't stop Sports Illustrated from ranking Notre Dame No. 4 in its college football preview edition (USC is No. 8), which puts the Irish in the four-team playoff.

The euphoria is based, apparently, on Notre Dame's momentum after a three-point bowl win over the worst Louisiana State team Les Miles has fielded in years.

We get it. Notre Dame was a beat-up team when it got clobbered last November by USC. That said, the Trojans were still limping from NCAA sanctions and suited up only 56 scholarship players (85 is the maximum allowed).

No one is saying Notre Dame can't, or won't, have a great season. The tout is simply not (yet) warranted.

We get it II: SI drums up more interest if it anoints Notre Dame, the program everyone either loves, hates to love, or loves to hate.

The Irish represent what the kids call "click-bait," and all editors, writers and producers know it.

"Showtime Sports" recently announced it will chronicle Notre Dame's "quest for a college football national championship with weekly, all-access in a groundbreaking new series."

Given the program's last national title came in 1988, "Showtime" could open each "quest" episode with Don Quixote, on his donkey, singing, "To dream the impossible dream."

It takes all the willpower a sports writer can muster to resist artificially inflating Notre Dame to a higher preseason power.

There is a lot to like about the Irish, yes, just as there is much to like about Arizona State, which waxed the Irish by 24 points last year in Tempe.

Arizona State is No. 17 in SI's preseason rankings.

No need to call the journalism police for this foray into First-Amendment fun, especially now that rankings and polls can no longer directly influence the national championship.

A committee has taken the role of picking the top four teams.

Notre Dame returns 18 starters and will get a balanced evaluation once the games begin. The schedule, as usual, pops. The Irish are all-but assured a playoff spot if they go undefeated against a gantlet that includes Texas, at Clemson, Georgia Tech, Navy, USC and Stanford.

Having expectations is great.

"It's not going to help them beat Texas," a person close to Notre Dame's program noted.

That person is sixth-year Coach Brian Kelly.

"Certainly it's going to be a long road," he added, "a difficult road to get to where we want to go."

Zaire, the quarterback who chased Golson to Florida State, will be protected by one of the nation's top offensive lines. He'll throw to Will Fuller, one of the country's top wide receivers.

The defense returns most of the pieces from a unit so devastated by late-season injuries it allowed an average of 41.6 points per game over the final seven regular-season games.

In the end, this is Notre Dame, still the best barnstorming act this side of the Globetrotters. The Irish play Boston College this year, at Fenway Park.

Boston College, located a musket-ball's throw from the venue, has been designated the "visiting" team in this neutral-site game and will receive an allotment of 5,000 tickets.

Notre Dame is the Green Monster.

There are reasons to be giddy, and not giddy, about a Notre Dame program that lost last year to Northwestern.

In case you're wondering: yes, we purposely slotted Notre Dame for the Sunday paper. It's our highest circulation day.

BYU could also be good this season. It didn't make the countdown.

The top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah; 22. Missouri; 21. Arkansas; 20. Tennessee. 19. Boise State; 18. Oklahoma.

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