SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A year ago, Notre Dame asserted itself as a national championship contender with a 30-13 win over Oklahoma in Norman.
Those championship dreams were dashed on the second weekend of the 2013 season in Ann Arbor. A win over Oklahoma won't change that.
A win over Oklahoma on Saturday, though, would vault a Notre Dame team that hasn't impressed through four games right back into the BCS discussion.
Oklahoma very well may be the only ranked team Notre Dame faces between now and Nov. 30's date with Stanford in Palo Alto (next week's opponent, Arizona State, could crack the top 25 but currently is on the outside looking in). It's a nationally-televised game, although one which will have its spotlight siphoned by the LSU-Georgia clash in Athens.
A win over Oklahoma (No. 12 in the coaches poll, No. 14 in the AP) would resonate a whole lot more than Irish victories against their next six opponents: Arizona State, USC, Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh, BYU.
That slate would, in theory, put an incredible amount of pressure on the Irish. A win, and their BCS hopes look strong. A loss, and the Pinstripe Bowl could be beckoning.
"Every game has that magnitude behind it," quarterback Tommy Rees said. "That's what you sign up for when you come to Notre Dame. For us, we treat every game like a big one, and every game is a big one. We're not going to change how we prepare or change the mindset we have going into this game."
True, if Notre Dame loses to Arizona State a week after beating Oklahoma, the win won't matter. If Notre Dame loses another game between now and Stanford, the Irish probably will have to run the table to make a BCS bowl — which, then, would mean beating Stanford two days after Thanksgiving.
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A common mantra among Notre Dame players goes something like this: Because we can't win conference championships, it's a national championship or bust.
With that goal defenestrated in Week 2, the next best thing is a BCS bowl. Thanks to a large, national fanbase that travels well and the politics of bowl season, a 10-2 Notre Dame team could earn a BCS berth over a more deserving team (as Michigan did in 2011 over Kansas State).
With all those implications in mind, wide receiver T.J. Jones admitted a game against a ranked, nationally-renowned opponent in Oklahoma carries more weight.
"Not being in a conference, with some of these bigger games you kinda may put a little more emphasis on it, whether it's as a team or individually just because you don't have that conference championship you're playing for," he said. "But whether we go 12-0 or 11-1, it's kind of about winning all of them. Not having that conference championship, it's all or nothing for us."
A group of players that spits out robotic one-day-at-a-time cliches isn't looking at the big picture — they've been trained not to, and had that lesson beat into their collective heads in last year's near-loss against Pittsburgh following the Oklahoma win.
But make no mistake, Saturday's game carries massive implications for the trajectory of Notre Dame's 2013 season. A win won't put Notre Dame in a BCS bowl, but it'll put the Irish on the right track.
A loss, and Notre Dame's BCS hopes will be hanging on by a thread.