SOUTH BEND, IND. — It's not every day such an opportunity arises: a big-time game against a nationally recognized and widely respected opponent. Win and people suddenly take you seriously. Lose and it's back to life in the lowlands.


How DOES Notre Dame expect to compete with Utah?

This is not a "Twilight Zone" episode. This is 2010, and painful as it is for Golden Dome devotees, Saturday's game is more important for the Irish. Notre Dame is the team trying to turn a bad season into a fair one; the team looking for national respect. Utah is already there. Despite that embarrassing loss to TCU, last week, the Utes are still ranked 15th after rising as high as No. 5 in the BCS power ratings.

Utah better than Notre Dame? Motivational speakers call it a paradigm shift. Hippies call it a far-out trip. Everyone else calls it the strange new order of college football.

Things have changed dramatically in recent years, despite the BCS's attempts to keep things status quo. Mid-size or small programs have become major players. Schools like Utah, Boise State and TCU keep picking at the scab, which means things aren't the same as 20 or even 10 years ago. Back then, a Utah win over Notre Dame would have been seismic; now it's expected. The Utes are a 5 1/2-point favorite. called it the toughest game on the Irish's home schedule. On, a discussion board, someone posed this question on Nov. 6: "If we beat Utah, would it be our greatest victory in 10 years?"

Considering Notre Dame has defeated West Virginia, Southern Cal, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Florida State, Washington, Tennessee, Penn State, Georgia Tech and UCLA, that's a mouthful. But most of those wins were earlier in the decade.

Irish coach Brian Kelly is labeling the game "an opportunity for us to get a win against a nationally ranked team and get back to playing winning football."

I think I need to sit down a minute.

While things have been rough for the Irish lately, the Utes have thrived. Since 2003, when Urban Meyer coached his first season at Utah, the Utes have 77 wins, Notre Dame 51. Utah has been ranked 48 weeks, Notre Dame 42. Utah has seven bowl appearances and seven wins, Notre Dame has four and one, respectively.

Notre Dame is 7-19 against ranked teams in that span, Utah 8-6.

It's not like the Irish don't still get good players. But the combination of cold weather, rigorous admission standards and sagging reputation have taken a toll. Notre Dame still has more players in the pros (34 to 21, as of last June) and 26 draft picks compared to 19. But the Utes have won 77 percent of their games against teams from automatic qualifying conferences since 2003, the Irish just half.

Both have two BCS bowl appearances in the last seven years, but Utah has won twice while Notre Dame is winless.

In the long view, it's no comparison. Notre Dame has seven more Heisman winners, three more Outland winners, and 11 more national championships than the Utes (who have none of the above). It also has 92 more consensus All-Americans and one more exclusive network TV contract.

Notre Dame has the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne and "Rudy."

Utah has a guy named Shaky.

Notre Dame has Fair Catch Corby, "We're No. 1" Moses and the Golden Dome. Utah has some stuff in the South Plaza, left over from the 2002 Olympics.

What the Irish (4-5) don't have is a good team. Utah (8-1) is coming off a 47-7 loss, but Notre Dame has lost to Navy and Tulsa — not exactly football royalty — in its last two games.

As with everything these days, it's not what you've done, it's what you're doing. Ask any poll voter and he'll tell you righteous truth: Utah is a team of today and Notre Dame is an icon of yesteryear.

For the Irish, this is a chance to get back their mojo and make a statement on the national stage. For the Utes? Just another game they're supposed to win.

Ho-hum. Playing against lightweights can be so boring.

e-mail: [email protected]