Thursday, September 7
Notre Dame won, but does it matter?

They stopped the losing streak, but not the doubters. Notre Dame won Saturday, but won nobody over. A 24-10 victory over Texas A&M only postpones the inevitable.

Bob Davie
Bob Davie's Notre Dame teams have been too mediocre to hate.
Unless the once-mighty Irish steal some magic from their golden history, this promises to be a trying season.

Even for those who love to hate Notre Dame, there can be little joy this year. The fun is beating the Irish at their best, knocking them off their perch -- not kicking the beaten bully when it is down.

For the first time in 15 years, they were not in the Associated Press' preseason poll. A four-game losing streak to end the 1999 season and a 5-7 record is not the stuff of legendary programs. That didn't help the cause this year.

Probably more of a concern, however, is the five-game stretch to start this season, including Saturday's opener against Texas A&M. No. 1 Nebraska visits South Bend this Saturday, followed by Purdue on Sept. 16. Then it's on to Michigan State on Sept. 23 before Stanford visits on Oct. 7.

No wonder there was such a huge sigh of relief in South Bend. It was simply a game the Irish had to have.

This would be a difficult opening stretch for the most formidable of Notre Dame teams, which this one certainly is not.

"We're not saying very much, because we don't have very much to talk about," said Notre Dame coach Bob Davie. "With this type of schedule, we have as much opportunity as we have anything else, and we have a group of players and coaches committed to making the most of it."

The vultures are already circling over Davie, waiting for him to slip. A poor start -- which almost seems inevitable -- will have them buzzing even more. Various speculation has Davie needing to win seven or eight games to keep his job, even though he has four years remaining on a five-year contract.

Say what you want about Davie (no college head coaching experience before getting the job, his offensive philosophy, etc.), but he inherited a program that was already slipping under previous coach Lou Holtz.

Since the Irish last seriously contended for a national title in 1993, they haven't had a first-team All-American. Since 1995, they've produced just two first-round NFL draft picks. This season, just one player was even drafted.

And Davie doesn't make the schedule, which makes it extremely difficult to be in the national championship hunt year after year.

"Let's be honest about it," he said. "I mean, it would help right now if we would have played some directional schools, as I call them, with some Easterns or Westerns in front of their name."

Make no mistake, the Irish will have a good team this year, with many players others would love to have on their roster. Davie is quietly confident, calling it his best Notre Dame team. It's just not what you would come to expect from such a storied program.

No longer do the Irish just waltz in and recruit whomever they want. Stricter academic requirements make that problematic. And so does the fact that other programs have become just as prominent, with blanket television coverage giving young football players the chance to see myriad opportunities.

Another thing that doesn't help Davie is the option offense, which might be difficult to defense but is even harder to sell to recruits who want to see a wide-open passing attack while looking toward the NFL. If you want future NFL-caliber talent, you need to attract them with the same style of play.

Davie, 45, is reluctant to discuss his future. But he is working for a new athletic director, Kevin White, who did not hire him nor give him the contract extension under which he is now working.

And no matter the situation, there is always pressure at Notre Dame. Whether the Irish are coming off a 5-7 season or defending a national championship, the expectations are sky high.

"Talk is cheap," Davie said. "It's the first time since I've been at Notre Dame that there is more talk about what we can't do than what we can do. Our challenge is pretty clear. Is is possible Notre Dame could be a surprise?"

If so, it would be more fun to dislike the Irish. Right, now, there's no point.

Just wondering
Did it occur to Ron Dayne last fall while he was accepting free or heavily discounted merchandise from a shoe store outside of Madison, Wis., that what he was doing might have cost him the Heisman Trophy? That a similar arrangement knocked his chief competition for the award out of the race?

What irony. A Wisconsin State Journal series led to the suspension of 26 players on this year's team. It came too late, however, to impact Dayne, now in the NFL.

According to the newspaper, 81 players were involved, including Dayne, who was a frequent visitor to The Shoe Box. The store owner offered huge discounts to players and defended it by saying they were available to any Wisconsin student. But Dayne apparently was allowed to take items for free.

Last year, Florida State's Peter Warrick was charged with a felony when it was reported that he paid a heavily-discounted price for merchandise at a department store. The difference, of course, is he did so in concert with a store clerk and not with the blessing of the owner. He was charged with a felony and suspended for two games before the charge was later changed to a misdemeanor. But his Heisman campaign was ruined.

Different arena
A year ago, he led his team to an impressive victory over Ohio State in the season opener. This year, he was with the Orlando Rays of the AA Southern League when the Miami Hurricanes opened their season with a victory against McNeese State on Thursday. Kenny Kelly is no longer a quarterback. He's a baseball player.

"My focus is on the curveball and not how to read a defense," said Kelly, who as part of his contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays got a Sept. 1 call-up to the major league roster. "What baseball offered was too good. I hope to become an all-star centerfielder for the Devil Rays in two or three years."

Kelly said he didn't miss two-a-day practice, but "I'll never get football out of my blood. . . I'll always love the game. I'll be watching on the weekends. I might even go to a game or two."

A Major decision
Texas coach Mack Brown figured the decision would be easy. Last year's starting quarterback, Major Applewhite, was coming off of knee surgery, making it easier to go with highly-touted sophomore Chris Simms, son of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms.

But Applewhite is making it tough. Brown still has not picked a starter for next week's opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.

"Major has been amazing," Brown said. "He's just so tough. ... With his rehabilitation and the great spring Chris had, there was a time when I thought we wouldn't have a question at quarterback at this point, but now we do. Major is just tough as nails, but he hasn't had bodies flying around his knees yet, because we don't allow that in practice."

Mission statement
Kansas State fans are making popular a T-shirt that reads "Arrowhead to Arrowhead." The Wildcats opened their season with a 27-7 victory over Iowa in the Eddie Robinson Classic on Aug. 26 at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium -- which is also the site of the Dec. 2 Big 12 Conference championship game.

The Wildcats, however, are headed toward a showdown with No. 1 Nebraska first. The two teams meet on Nov. 11.

Bob Harig covers college football for the St. Petersburg Times and his weekly recap appears every Sunday.

Battle golden in Notre Dame victory

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