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4-0 start not as impressive as it seems

Image: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o (© Matt Cashore/US Presswire)
Notre Dame's Manti Te'o celebrates one of his two interceptions vs. Michigan.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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SOUTH BEND, Ind.

Breathe in, breathe out, Notre Dame fans. OK?

Here is your reality: The Irish are good again. But they are not great. They are not back. There is no “back’’ for them. It has been too long. They had to start all over, from scratch.

Wake up the echoes? No, no. Notre Dame had to clean out the cobwebs.

In fact, the Irish were torn down by people who didn’t realize that, wouldn’t accept it, couldn’t help but to panic over the idea of it. So I understand the excitement now. The Irish beat Michigan 13-6 on Saturday to move to 4-0. Notre Dame will be back in the top 10.

It’s fun.

But despite the ranking, this is not one of the nation’s 10 best teams.

It has beaten three teams from the Big Ten, an awful, awful conference that can’t move into the modern era of football. The ranking is based on something that doesn’t exist now. It’s about an excitement over what some people think is Notre Dame’s rightful place.

Knute Rockne was such a good coach that he’s responsible for a top-10 ranking even today. And if you think this is a top-10 team, then get ready for some heavy disappointment later in the year.

People see Notre Dame beating Michigan and don’t remember that it’s 2012. They think about a grand rivalry of storied programs. And that makes you think that this was a historically great game.

It was not. For so many reasons, football isn’t good in the Midwest anymore. The power is in the South, and some in the West. Early in Saturday’s game, Michigan and Notre Dame might have been trying to play the fast game of the South, and not the smashmouth game of the Midwest.

It’s a good idea to modernize. But for now, both teams looked as awkward as Steve Martin clapping hands off-beat on his front porch in “The Jerk.’’ At one point, Michigan threw interceptions on five straight passes.

Five. Straight. Passes.

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Quarterback Denard Robinson, the most overrated quarterback in the country, ended up with four interceptions — another came on a halfback option — and a fumble. Most of his interceptions were just thrown right to Notre Dame defenders. You cannot win a football game with six turnovers, but Notre Dame wasn’t good enough to put this one away.

Michigan was still in it until the final two minutes.

Notre Dame has a good defense, but no quarterback. And a confused offense.

Do not try to measure this team by legends and myths. It’s not that you have to forget your past, but only that you have to accept that it is not part of today, on the field.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly called last week’s win over Michigan State, another bad Big Ten team, a signature win. What about this one over Michigan?

“It’s another step in the process of consistency that I’ve talked about,’’ he said. “Before you can go from being a good team to a great team, you have to exhibit some form of consistency in performance, and you have to play week in and week out.’’

Process. It was the perfect word. It’s exactly why Kelly is doing a good job. Just three hours from Notre Dame Saturday, a little west of Chicago, Northern Illinois University was playing Kansas in football.

No one noticed. Kansas’ coach is Charlie Weis, the “Intern” as I used to call him when he was Notre Dame’s coach. Eventually, when Irish fans finally fell out of love with Weis, someone put up a billboard calling him that, too.

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He had never been a head coach before, and was lacking college experience. He had to learn on the job at one of the most prestigious programs in the country. But Notre Dame’s powers, panicking over Tyrone Willingham’s failures and still trying to rebuild a bridge to Rudy and the Gipper and the Four Horsemen, and even to Lou Holtz, threw money and contract years at Weis just because he came close to beating USC.

Came close, but lost.

His big failure, other than his personality, was that he thought the way to win was to recruit top players and then let his genius — “schematic advantage,’’ he called it — win games. The truth is, college football is almost entirely about player development. You cannot replace failing players as easily as you can in the NFL, where Weis had his experience.

Weis didn’t bother to develop. Kelly is doing it.

And Notre Dame’s defense is improving because Kelly’s players are getting better. Backups in the defensive backfield look solid. Linebacker Manti Te’o, who came highly touted to Notre Dame, keeps improving. With two more interceptions Saturday, he is one of the nation’s best players.

“It all evolves around him, his personality, his strength,’’ Kelly said. “Take advantage of him now while you’ve got him, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.’’

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But the program is still paying for Weis, still suffering from him. The problem with him was his shortcomings, yes, but also the fact that Notre Dame, out of panic about the past, couldn’t see what he really was.

It’s fine to hold on to the past, but only in perspective. For now, it actually sets the Irish up for failure. They get too much of a TV contract, too big of a bowl, too high a ranking.

Then, in over their heads, they lose, they disappoint. They haven’t won a national title since 1988. They have lost 10 of their past 12 bowl games. They can’t stay close to USC.

Kelly is doing a good job so far. You’re still a long way away, though, Notre Dame fans. But if you can celebrate a process or improvement, then go wild.

Just remember what got you here. You once believed in Weis and his genius. Kansas, by the way, led Northern Illinois late Saturday. Then, it fell apart and lost.

Schematic genius just isn’t what it used to be.

Tagged: Michigan, Buffalo, Notre Dame, Kansas, Brian Kelly

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