By Stewart Mandel
September 09, 2009

You may find this hard to believe (actually, you probably won't), but the team about which I receive the most e-mails is not Florida, Texas or USC. It's Notre Dame. And unlike with most schools, I receive nearly as many Irish-related queries from non-Notre Dame fans as from Domers. Generally, those particular readers aren't writing in to compliment the Irish.

Thus, in advance of Saturday's Notre Dame-Michigan duel -- a game 80 percent of the country will complain receives too much attention, but 75 percent will still watch -- I found this e-mail from Marc Perras of Somerville, Mass., to be particularly thought provoking.

Stewart, I think we agree that a perennial powerhouse for fans to love/hate makes any sport more fun. I've seen the love drift away from Notre Dame over the past decade, but the hate still seems to be of New York Yankees/Duke basketball proportions. Is it the NBC contract? Because it's certainly not the winning. Shouldn't fans be more worried about USC and Florida dominating the sport?

Marc has a point. The Yankees haven't won the World Series in a while, but at least they contend. Duke doesn't go to the Final Four every year, but the Blue Devils are usually in the mix. The Irish, however, haven't won a national championship in 21 years and have only finished in the top 10 (No. 9, in 2005) once in the past 15 years. And yet, national resentment toward Notre Dame remains as strong as ever.

Why is that? Probably because...

The Irish play by their own set of rules. Twenty years ago, Notre Dame's status as an independent was hardly unique. Florida State, Miami, Penn State and others were independents as well. But in the BCS era, when so much is made of conference strength, it frustrates fans of other teams that the BCS treats Notre Dame as a conference unto itself. Why should one school get special treatment?

The relentless media attention. While doing preseason radio interviews around the country, I was asked about Notre Dame more than any team besides Florida. No matter the media market, the Irish are a constant topic of conversation. Meanwhile, one of ESPN's most visible analysts is a former Irish coach-turned-cheerleader. In a sport where fans are perpetually paranoid about perceived media favoritism, Notre Dame is the one case where it's quite noticeably true.

The NBC contract. At this point, Notre Dame's TV contract is not nearly as lucrative as those of any Big Ten or SEC school, but that's not really the point. The fact that the Irish have their own dedicated network irks people for the same reason as my first point: special treatment.

Their (perceived) arrogance. Notre Dame fans may not have much to brag about wins-wise lately, but they're the first to point out their school "does it the right way" -- high graduation rates, no juco transfers, no jock majors. In theory, this approach should be something to which the rest of the country aspires. In reality, most people simply refuse to believe it's true and resent the fact that a vocal fan base perpetuates this "myth" (though I personally don't believe it's a myth).

The BCS bowl losses. Notre Dame is hardly the only team that's lost multiple BCS games, and Ohio State and Oklahoma have received their share of criticism for similar failures. But those Buckeye and Sooner teams were BCS-conference champions that would have played in one of the big games regardless. Every time the Irish lay an egg against an Oregon State or an LSU, there's frustration over the fact someone more "deserving" could have received that bid.

Their coach is a (perceived) S.O.B. I don't remember a whole lot of venom toward the Irish when Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham were coaching them. But from the minute Charlie Weis arrived on campus and announced his intent to out-scheme all comers -- then received a big, fact contract for almost beating USC -- he became a villain. While he's changed his tone considerably the past couple of years, first impressions are hard to shake.

There are a couple of interesting historical footnotes to add to this discussion. For one, most fans don't realize that in the 1920s, Notre Dame actively sought membership in the Big Ten, but the league's schools -- most vocally Michigan -- voted against it. And in light of the hubbub about the Irish's preferential bowl treatment, it's incredible to think that for more than four decades (1925-68), the school did not allow the team to play in bowl games, period.

But that's all moot today. If the Irish win Saturday, and if they string together more victories after that, they're going to rise up the polls, and as they do, fans around the country will inevitably grow more and more incensed.

Here's what I wonder. What would happen if Notre Dame does fulfill Dr. Lou's prophecy and reach the BCS Championship Game? More importantly, what would happen if the Irish won? Would respect finally replace all that resentment and skepticism?

I doubt it, and here's why. While no self-respecting Big 12 or SEC fan would ever admit it, there's one universal theme behind all that hatred: envy.

While OU's offensive line was unquestionably terrible against BYU, do you really think Oklahoma would not have won if Sam Bradford were healthy? I think they would have scored more with Bradford and BYU doesn't win. And if OU ends up as bad as you seem to think they'll be, is this win that impressive for BYU?-- Tom H., Hanover, N.H.

There are games when a quarterback or other star player gets hurt, and suddenly the momentum changes completely. Oklahoma-BYU was not one of them. Obviously, the Sooners' offense would have stood a much better chance in the second half if it hadn't lost the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, but it's not like the unit was trucking along with Bradford in the lineup. BYU's defense was dominating the line of scrimmage early, and continued to do so throughout the second half.

Would the game have turned out differently had Bradford not gotten hurt? Quite possibly. But how different might the game have been for BYU had the Cougars not been without star running back Harvey Unga? BYU won despite rushing for just 28 yards. You could argue Oklahoma probably would have scored more than three points in the second half with Bradford, but I'll counter that the Cougars might have scored more points, too, if they hadn't been forced to play such one-dimensional football.

Whatever the case, I would like to clarify that I don't suddenly think Oklahoma is "bad." Kevin Wilson is one of the best offensive coordinators in the business. He'll get that line playing better in a hurry, and Bradford will be back in just a few weeks (though losing tight end Jermaine Gresham for the season hurts). Remember, the Sooners have been down this road before. In 2006, they lost quarterback Rhett Bomar just before the season, lost to Oregon and Texas early, lost running back Adrian Peterson to a broken collarbone -- and still won the Big 12.

So I wouldn't count out Oklahoma in the Big 12. As for the national title ... that would likely require the Sooners winning all their remaining games. That's not going to happen.

After watching last night's Miami-Florida State game, I knew we were going to see headlines calling the teams "relevant" again. Even though the game was exciting, I felt like I was watching two of the worst pass defenses I've seen. Are these teams really "back" or are they just imitating the defenses of the Big 12?-- Jonathan Davis, St. Petersburg, Fla.

It depends on your definition of "relevant." Did the Hurricanes and Seminoles prove they're ready to contend for national titles again? I wouldn't go that far. Miami's pass-rush was non-existent. FSU's secondary and running games were suspect. But considering the type of squads these two trotted out the past three or four years, it felt like watching two entirely different teams -- two exciting teams. That alone, in my mind, makes them relevant again.

First and foremost, I was impressed with the quarterbacks -- and it's been a long time since I've said that about either team. Miami's Jacory Harris is a sparkplug. He's young, and he makes some bad decisions, but he's got an undeniable swagger and he made some spectacular long throws on the run. FSU's Christian Ponder was less flashy but more steady. If he'd gotten just a little more help from his receivers, he would have been on the winning side.

The other thing that we can't overlook: Both teams' offensive lines have improved immensely. Miami running backs Graig Cooper and Javarris James finally had some holes to run through, which meant they finally got to show off their open-field ability. Ponder had all day to sit back and find his targets. While I expect both teams will still endure their share of growing pains, I fully expect to see both factor in their respective ACC divisions (the 'Noles have the benefit of playing on the easier side) and sit in the top 15 or 20 come December.

First Alabama's Julio Jones and Mark Ingram got in trouble for taking an impermissible Gulf Coast fishing trip. Then I see Texas' Colt McCoy on the cover of Bassmaster magazine. Does the NCAA rulebook differentiate between freshwater and saltwater fish?-- Greg, Nashville

Considering the size of that thing, I wouldn't be surprised. But as long as Colt or his family paid for his own fishing expenses, he should be in the clear.

Stewart, I agree LaGarrette Blount overreacted, but Boise State's Byron Hout physically touched the guy as well as saying something to him. This is not Little League. Don't you think Hout should be suspended by his coach as well for a game or two?-- James, Alexandria, Va.

Stewart -- How can BSU's coach not suspend Hout? Taunting and a shove go unpunished? Where's the WAC's commissioner on this incident?-- Patrick, Chicago

I'm a little perplexed by all of this talk about suspending Byron Hout. If Blount hadn't lost his mind and punched him in the face would you still be calling for this kid to get suspended?-- Justin, Seattle

I was amazed by how quickly the discussion over Thursday night's melee shifted from Blount's punishment to Hout's lack of punishment. That first e-mail from James arrived shortly after the game ended, and similar ones streamed in for several days. On Monday, when I gave my own take ("How does the school not punish Byron Hout?"), I was immediately deluged by e-mails like Justin's defending Hout.

To answer the question, no, Hout's taunting would never have become an issue had Blount simply walked away. But you know what else? Had the whole thing taken place on a Saturday at 4:30 in the afternoon on Versus, Blount would currently be serving a three-game suspension, not sitting the entire season. It's unfair, but it's reality. Blount made the mistake of going berserk at the worst possible moment -- on national television, on the season's opening night, during a slow news-cycle when SportsCenter could replay the meltdown over and over. Oregon found itself under a national microscope for the worst possible reason, forcing Chip Kelly to act decisively.

And for that same reason, Chris Petersen needed to punish Hout, even if only for one game. The nation was watching. It saw a Boise State player do something unbecoming of the program. Petersen had a chance to take a stand against Hout's actions, but he didn't. (Sorry, no one's buying the "internal discipline" thing.) It may seem unfair to single out Hout for something that goes on all the time, but hey, not everyone who drives over the speed limit gets a ticket. Not every one who does drugs gets arrested. If you don't impose consequences when someone does get caught, you're sending the wrong message.

Hi Stewart. Do you still think Rutgers will win the Big East? Thanks.-- Ken Thompson, University of Cincinnati, 1999

No, I do not still think Rutgers will win the Big East. Cincinnati is now the hands-down team to beat. I learned two lessons from this prognostication humiliation: never doubt Brian Kelly, and never place a team in the "BCS Forecast" on Monday morning that's playing later that afternoon. (A rule, of course, I won't get to apply until next Labor Day.)

I rarely see you discuss Colorado, and for good reason, but was last weekend's loss to Colorado State the beginning of the end for Dan Hawkins?-- Philip Greenberg, Denver

Since you like to try your hand at prognosticating -- when will Al Groh be fired? Will he make it to the end of the season, or will UVA go all Clemson/Tommy Bowden on him?-- David, Washington D.C.

Ah yes, the Week 1 hot seat.

With the obvious exception of Oregon (and possibly Illinois), no one delivered a more discouraging opening-week performance than Colorado. Hawkins pledged this would be the year the Buffs turned the corner, but they seem plagued by the same things as last year -- shoddy quarterbacking, lack of playmakers and an offensive line that got physically dominated.

As bad as it looked, however, I'm not giving up on Colorado just yet. For one thing, Colorado State may turn out to be pretty darn good. Steve Fairchild did a heck of a job in his first season, improving the Rams from 3-9 to 7-6, capped by a bowl win over Fresno State. Last season, Colorado State lost by less than a touchdown to both TCU and BYU. You could be looking at a Mountain West contender, in which case the Buffs' loss might not seem so incriminating down the road.

As for Groh ... don't pretend you didn't see this day coming. He's only been underachieving there now for NINE YEARS. However, he also seems to have nine lives, which is why I'm afraid I'll put my foot in my mouth if I make any definitive declarations here. In 2007, the Cavs opened with a 23-3 loss to Wyoming, then rolled off seven straight wins and went to the Gator Bowl. Last year they started 1-3, then got to 5-3 before tanking the rest of the way.

But who am I kidding? The Cavs just lost to William and Mary. If we're starting a pool, I'll take Nov. 9.

Is it just me or is the nation significantly misinterpreting the Ohio State-Navy game? I watched the whole game and came away very impressed with Navy. It outplayed OSU on a down-to-down basis (the two bad turnovers really hurt the Middies) and they did not seem overwhelmed athletically in the least. Paint me green and call me Gumby, but I think they could run the table. (Yes, I am aware they play at Pitt and Notre Dame and host Wake.)-- Ian Kelly, Bakersfield, Calif.

I came away very impressed with Navy as well, particularly quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Not only does he run the option well, but he's easily the best passer to date in the Paul Johnson/Ken Nuimatalolo era. Dobbs completed 9-of-13 passes, which may not seem like much, but it was more completions than Navy managed in any game last season. It's possible Ohio State simply wasn't prepared for that element of Navy's offense, and that future opponents will be, but I doubt the performance was fluky.

Navy is no slouch. The Midshipmen have been to six straight bowls and beat two BCS-conference bowl teams last year (Rutgers and Wake Forest). However, this was the first time during their current run that we saw the Middies hang toe-to-toe with a nationally elite team. (Their games against Notre Dame's 2005 and '06 BCS teams were not competitive.) It will be interesting to see if they can knock off Pitt or the Irish.

You wrote: "Only one weekend in, and I already want to pound my head into a wall every time I hear that Kenny Chesney snippet. Why, ESPN? Why?" There's hope for you yet on the music front, Mandel! Nice one.-- Peter Blackstock, Poulsbo, Wash.

For the record, I wasn't thrilled with the Dave Matthews segments, either, but ESPN seemed more actively determined to shove Chesney down our throats.

Let me just reiterate what I wrote on Twitter during the Miami-FSU game: If any of you suddenly feel tempted to download a Kenny Chesney song while watching a college football game, please, send me the 99 cents instead.

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