The state of the Irish

If Brian Kelly is going to lead the Irish back to prominence, a win over USC is necessary. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Nov. 13, 1993, second-ranked Notre Dame knocked off No. 1 Florida State, 31-24, in a game that was every bit as huge as the upcoming LSU-Alabama showdown … if not even bigger. With only one game remaining in the regular season, the 10-0 Fighting Irish seemed poised to win their second national championship under Lou Holtz. But, in a strange twist of fate, that day turned out to be the pinnacle of post-1990 Notre Dame football.

The next week, the Irish overcame a 21-point deficit against Boston College and held a 39-38 lead in the closing seconds, only to be beaten by a twisting, 41-yard field goal as time expired. And if that kick in itself didn't defy the so-called "luck of the Irish," Notre Dame then saw Florida State selected as national champion by both polls. The Irish finished as runner-up to a team they had defeated in November.

Since that time, Notre Dame has reached new lows that wouldn't have seemed fathomable in 1993, such as six nonwinning seasons in an 11-year span (including a 1-9 start to the 2007 season) and an NCAA-record nine straight bowl losses (including an 0-3 record in the BCS). The Irish even made a move that stooped to the level of the football factories, firing coach Tyrone Willingham before the end of his third season.

Through all of this, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have devolved into an ordinary college football program in the eyes of many fans, especially those in the younger generations. And after a summer of hype about the 2011 season being a springboard back to glory, the Irish began with an 0-2 record after a comedy of errors against the South Florida Bulls and Michigan Wolverines.

Optimism, however, is rising again. The Irish have reeled off four straight wins and, with a manageable schedule ahead, are starting to look like a possible at-large entry to the BCS. But for that to become a reality, Notre Dame must first find its way back into the Top 25 -- a position that seemed like a birthright less than 20 years ago but more recently has been just out of reach more often than not.