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Notre Dame is back -- and college football is better for it

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If you missed the last 19 years of Notre Dame football, I'll give you a brief summary:

The first 18 years were filled with people saying Notre Dame football would never come back.

In the 19th year, Notre Dame came back.

And for all those folks who thought this would never happen, I have news for you: You are the reason it happened.

OK, not the only reason, or the immediate reason. Brian Kelly and Manti Te'o are bigger reasons. But they ended up at Notre Dame for the same reason all those folks who ripped on the Fighting Irish over the years remained so obsessed: Notre Dame loses games, but it never loses its mystique. In a very fundamental way, the mystique is the program.

There is no team in college football like Notre Dame. Wait, that's not quite right. There is no team in sports like Notre Dame.

Sure, every sport has some kind of traditional superpower that most fans either love or hate. In baseball, it's the New York Yankees. In the NFL, it's the Dallas Cowboys. In college basketball, it's Duke. The difference with Notre Dame is that it is both historically dominant and a perpetual underdog. That seems impossible, but Notre Dame specializes in the seemingly impossible.

The Yankees have boasted a big-city, big-money aura for as long as they have been great. They acquired Babe Ruth because of money. In the late 1950s, they seemed to use the Kansas City A's, another major-league team, as a farm club. And of course, for the last 40 years of Steinbrenner family reign, the Yankees have bought the biggest houses and fanciest clothes, then paid players obscene amounts of money to fill them.

College football has teams with that kind of aura -- not because they pay players, but because their greatness just makes sense. Everything about Ohio State and Texas is huge, from the student populations to the number of alumni to, especially, the recruiting bases. If we started college football from scratch tomorrow, we would assume that Ohio State and Texas would be great. They are perfectly positioned for it.

Notre Dame? It's a small, Catholic university in Northwest Indiana. The only thing that separates it is lore. From winning one for the Gipper to Rudy to Joe Montana's chicken soup game, Notre Dame has woven storytelling together with winning like no other entity in sports.

This is why so many people kept yammering about Notre Dame all these years. This is why Notre Dame takes its football independence so seriously: It's not so much about scheduling or history, but about being different.

And while the last 19 years seemed to make Notre Dame less relevant, they really just made Notre Dame more different. Look around. Teams change uniforms like they get paid by the costume switch -- which they basically do. Schools are abandoning historic rivals and jumping from league to league in blatant money grabs. When coaches are hired and fired, athletic directors barely even pay lip service to academics.

Meanwhile, game day at Notre Dame feels almost exactly like it did in 1993. The stadium has been expanded, but there are no luxury suites. It feels like a football game, not a marketing opportunity.

There are still questions about the outsized importance of football at Notre Dame, and whether it is all worth it -- that goes back to the days of Rockne. But the program had the top graduation rate in the country this year, an incredible feat for a team that went undefeated. Notre Dame has kept its sense of what it is, and what it wants to be. Oregon just makes Notre Dame seem even more like Notre Dame.

THAMEL: The unsung hero behind Notre Dame's success

And this is why it is so great to have Notre Dame back. It is fitting that the Fighting Irish are facing another 20th-century powerhouse, and fitting, too, that Alabama seems like the clear choice to win. This is how Notre Dame stories are written.

A few weeks ago, I stood on the sidelines as Alabama finished its mesmerizing SEC championship game win over Georgia. I thought: I'm picking Alabama to beat Notre Dame. I'm picking Alabama now, and I'm writing it now, so anybody paying attention knows it. And I did.

Alabama's offensive line had been so dominant, and its defense was so loaded with talent, that I decided then and there that as good as Notre Dame has been, the Crimson Tide were simply the more talented team, and I needed to say that publicly before I got sucked into the hype vortex and started believing otherwise.

But then a few things happened. LSU lost to Clemson. Florida got crushed by Louisville. South Carolina almost lost to Michigan. Georgia needed a second-half rally to beat Nebraska. I started to wonder if the Southeastern Conference is really bigger, stronger, faster and better-looking than all the other leagues this year, or if we are just assuming it is.

I started to wonder if Alabama will lose. This is partly because of those SEC bowl results, and partly because of that hype vortex. It sucks me in every time. But another part is simply this: It's Notre Dame. Beating favored Alabama and ending the SEC's run of dominance would be such a Notre Dame thing to do.

Welcome back, Irish. And by the way: I'm still picking you to lose. It's the least I can do.

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