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Sinking feeling at ND
A win over Navy could start to right the ship for the Irish
One team is 6-3 and thinking about a bowl bid. The other team is 2-6 and hoping it can get back to .500, where it would at least be bowl-eligible. One team has had a steady stream of Parade All-Americans over the years. The other team, as its coach quipped this week, has had a steady of stream of players who have marched in parades.
One team is Notre Dame. The other is Navy. And seldom has this longstanding series had such an interesting plot line.
Why? Because more than a few people think Navy can win tomorrow's game in South Bend, Ind.
Think about that for a minute. And think about this. Notre Dame, the 2-6 entry in this contest, needs to win this game. Needs it desperately. Not only to maintain the Irish's slim bowl possibilities, but to put the ship back in the proper channel -- and reestablish its place as one of the Bowl Championship Series programs that thinks about a national championship from the first day of practice in August.
There was a time when Notre Dame routinely turned down bowl bids, no matter what the stature. From the 1924 Rose Bowl until the 1969 Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame's policy on postseason play for its football team was a one-word answer: No. And that was with national championship teams and undefeated seasons led by coaches like Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy.
From 1946-49, Notre Dame didn't lose a game. It also didn't play in a bowl game. And even when the policy was loosened following the 1969 season, the Irish were selective in their postseason activities. The 1971 team went 8-2 and didn't play in a bowl game. The 1975 squad went 8-3 and stayed home. The 1979 Irish finished with a 7-4 record and also stayed home over the holidays.
How times have changed. Coach Tyrone Willingham's team could win the rest of its games -- after Navy, Notre Dame plays Brigham Young at home and Stanford and Syracuse on the road -- to go 6-6, and that might earn the Irish a slot in the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., Dec. 27.
Still, the fact that a win over Navy is not a given is noteworthy. It has been 40 years since Navy beat Notre Dame in football, and that was a Navy team led by Roger Staubach. "There's a reason they have won 39 years in a row," said Navy coach Paul Johnson. "They probably have 35 Parade All-Americans, and we have 35 guys who have marched in parades. It is not apples and apples. Does that mean that we can't win? No. But in all honesty, to beat them we have to play close to perfect."
When asked how he can say that in light of the Irish's 2-6 record, Johnson said, "They have lost to the No. 2 team in the country [Southern California] and the No. 3 team [Florida State], so I think that record might be a tad deceiving."
The Irish also have lost to the No. 8 team (Michigan), the No. 14 team (Michigan State), and the No. 16 team (Purdue), and have beaten the No. 25 team (Pittsburgh) and the No. 12 team (Washington State).
But that does not diminish the sense of uneasiness as Navy comes to town. Such is the state of affairs these days in South Bend, when beating a school that hasn't beaten the Irish since John F. Kennedy was president has become crucial.
Ahead of pack
Although it is too early to make any definitive calls on the outcome of the BCS bowl chase, USC looks solid as the No. 2 pick (and Sugar Bowl title game participant) if it wins the remainder of its games. The Trojans are off this week and have a game at Arizona before closing the regular season with home games against UCLA and Oregon State. USC should be favored in all of those games. But there is an outside possibility that one of the one-loss teams in the BCS rankings can catch the Trojans. The most likely possibility would be Miami, which is ranked fourth, behind Oklahoma, USC, and Florida State. But if the Hurricanes run the table (Tennessee, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh remain on the schedule), they likely would at least jump over Florida State (which they beat soundly) and, based on strength of schedule, might even get to No. 2 in the polls if USC struggles in any of its games, since the voters will consider Miami's wins over Florida, Florida State, and Tennessee to be better than anything USC did. "If you are considering one-loss teams, we should be considered as much as anyone," said Miami coach Larry Coker . . . Although Oklahoma deserves to be a prohibitive favorite over Texas A&M, a word of caution about the 31-point spread. A year ago, the Sooners came into their game against the Aggies with the same 8-0 record they have now, and lost . . . Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer has to worry about his team suffering a letdown after its 31-7 win over Miami last weekend. But he also has to worry about his team's late-season performance the past few years. Since 2000, Tech is 7-10 in games after Nov. 1 . . . Kansas is facing a tough task. The Jayhawks have not beaten Nebraska in their last 34 meetings, and have kept the margin within single digits only four times . . . Mississippi is off to its best start in the Southeastern Conference (5-0) since 1963, which was also the last time the Rebels won the SEC title.
Joe not going
Not surprisingly, Joe Paterno is hearing his share of "Joe Must Go" chants. Penn State is a horrible 2-7 going into tomorrow's game against Northwestern, which the Nittany Lions had better win or the chants will become roars. Paterno is not letting it get to him. At least not publicly. "Physically, I feel good," said the 76-year-old coach. "If people don't like what I'm doing, fine. I can't worry about those things." The bottom line here is that despite this bad season, the worst by Penn State in more than 70 years, Joe Pa still deserves to go out on his own terms, and ending his career with a sub-.500 season is not the right way to do it. If the Nittany Lions are again well under .500 next season, then someone should sit Paterno down and talk seriously with him about stepping down. But one bad year should not negate 50 good ones in which Paterno has been a great ambassador for not only Penn State but all of college football. So cut the "Joe Must Go" nonsense and let him leave at his own pace. He will do the right thing for the school . . . Each season has defining moments for a team, and this week is Boston College's. The Eagles are in a must-win situation against West Virginia tomorrow. A victory gives them the six wins they need to become bowl-eligible and puts them in decent position to solidify their bowl slot next week at Rutgers. A loss, however, would make it almost a necessity for the Eagles to beat both Rutgers and No. 5 Virginia Tech to earn a bowl bid for the fifth consecutive season . . . Hats off to the job Curry College coach Steve Nelson has done in guiding the Colonels to an unbeaten season. The oddity is that Curry closes its regular season tomorrow with a game against Westfield State, then faces the Owls again next week in the New England Football Conference title game. Nellie was a good player for the Patriots and has turned into an even better coach in making Curry a more-than-respectable Division 3 program . . . The SEC likely would solve its potential dilemma of breaking a three-way tie among Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in the East Division by naming the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings as champ. Currently, Georgia ranks 10th, Tennessee 13th, and Florida 17th.
Material from wire services was used in this report.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.