— On the campus of the University of Notre Dame, football legends blend into the crowd, and whatever is happening at the moment always seems small against a looming, iconic past.
But after a win over Southern California late Saturday, this year's Notre Dame team holds an unlikely ticket to college football's national championship game and a chance to add theirs to a list of many special seasons in South Bend.
They would join the 1966 national championships who went 9-0-1 behind a defense that allowed just 38 points all season and accumulated six shutouts along the way. And the perfect 1973 team that upset No. 1 Alabama, 24-23, in the Sugar Bowl.
There's the 11-1 team in 1977 that vaulted from No. 5 to the national champion's spot with a Cotton Bowl domination of Texas, 38-10.
And, of course, there are the 1988 Irish who edged Michigan to open the season, toppled No. 1 Miami in October, and then beat No. 3 West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to claim a record 11th national title.
Even with that history, this could be one of the most special teams in Notre Dame history.
This team wasn’t even ranked in the season’s first Associated Press Top 25 poll. An online poll in The Goshen News before the season started asked people how they thought Notre Dame would do. More than 400 people voted, but only 19 thought the Irish would play for a national championship.
Notre Dame raised eyebrows with a season-opening crushing of Navy, in a game played in Dublin, Ireland, in August. But, many people reasoned, that was a weak Navy team, and Notre Dame was bound to come back to earth once they got back on this side of The Pond.
That opinion was reinforced in Notre Dame’s home opener in South Bend, when the Irish needed a field goal in the final moments to beat unranked Purdue, 20-17.
Notre Dame's impressive 20-3 road win at No. 10 Michigan State, followed by a home victory against No. 18 Michigan, hinted at the team's emerging defensive identity and lifted the Irish into the Top 10 for the first time in six years.
Even then, serious questions remained about a pedestrian offense led by freshman quarterback Everett Golson.
That was before Notre Dame dominated Miami, then eked out an overtime win against Stanford, which put them in the Top 5. Suddenly, a Bowl Championship Series bowl game seemed likely. A spot in the national championship game, though still remote, seemed possible.
Following a home scare against BYU, Notre Dame traveled to perennial power Oklahoma. Again, it was an underdog against the eighth-ranked Sooners. The Irish left with a 30-13 win.
The streak almost ended the next week, when Pittsburgh missed what would have been a game-winning field goal in overtime. Golson later scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak, and the Irish were 9-0.
A lunch-pail road win at Boston College and a thrashing of Wake Forest at home moved Notre Dame to 11-0, but it was bound to stay at No. 3. That was until the BCS seas parted.
The night after the Wake Forest victory, Baylor upset No. 1 Kansas State, and No. 2 Oregon fell in overtime to Stanford.
Just like that, Notre Dame, an afterthought 11 weeks earlier, was No. 1.
Students on campus poured out of their dorms to celebrate. A lighted “#1” sign was plugged in atop Grace Hall. All that stood between Notre Dame and a trip to the title game was a win over arch-rival USC in Los Angeles.
The Irish beat the Trojans, 22-13, Saturday night behind the hard-nosed rushing of running back Theo Riddick, the leg of kicker Kyle Brindza and the defensive magic of linebacker Manti Te’o. It was the first victory by a No. 1-ranked Notre Dame team since the Irish beat Tennessee on Nov. 10, 1990.
Up next is presumedly the winner of this coming Saturday’s SEC championship between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia. More than likely, the Irish will again be underdogs since an SEC team has won the past five national championships.
Also, Notre Dame has also not performed well in major bowls. The Irish have qualified for three BCS bowl games since 2000 — the Fiesta against Oregon State in 2000, the Fiesta against Ohio State in 2005, and the Sugar against LSU in 2006 - and lost all three.
Notre Dame many not have the most talented team in the country, and the Irish certainly had some luck on their way to a 12-0 record. Any national championship team does.
But while success is nothing new in South Bend, this season seemingly came out of nowhere and surprised the college football world. That's what makes it so special.
Michael Wanbaugh is managing editor of the Goshen, Ind., News, 25 miles east of South Bend.