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Notre Dame of consequence again

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Cheers and Jeers,Sports,College,Brian McNally

It is the team you love to hate. Or maybe the team you love even though you didn't go to school within 1,000 miles of South Bend, Ind. But there are few undecided voters here. Notre Dame football is not a subject about which fans remain indifferent.

And that makes the Fighting Irish's 7-0 start a big deal for college football fans across the country. Whether you love it or hate it, the sport is always more interesting when Notre Dame is good. And it has been a while since it has been undefeated this late in a season. The fifth-ranked Irish (also fifth in the BCS rankings) head into Saturday's showdown at No. 8 Oklahoma with a chance to prove they are back among college football's elite under third-year coach Brian Kelly. They haven't been 7-0 in a season since 2002 under former coach Tyrone Willingham.

So far Notre Dame's best wins are at home over No. 19 Stanford (5-2) and No. 20 Michigan (5-2). It just escaped with a fourth-quarter comeback last weekend against unranked BYU (4-4), a 17-14 victory. The schedule the next three weeks is soft with games against Pittsburgh (3-4), Boston College (1-6) and Wake Forest (4-3). The Irish then finish with a tough road game at No. 10 USC (6-1).

But it's far too soon to look at possible national title implications. That 2002 team, after all, was 8-0 following a win at No.?11 Florida State. Yet the very next week Notre Dame was shocked at home by unranked Boston College and eventually lost to N.C. State in the Gator Bowl. Willingham's tenure never really recovered.

Since then the program has faded. Charlie Weis did produce a 9-3 season in 2005 and a 10-3 mark in 2006 and appearances in the Fiesta Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. But the Irish were crushed both times by Ohio State and LSU. The elite teams were just too good for them, and Notre Dame is not a place where 8-5 -- its record the past two seasons -- provides much job security. This is Kelly's first big chance to show his program is capable of matching his fan base's expectations.

- Brian McNally

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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