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On Echoes

“If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

January 1, 1981:Sugar Bowl - Notre Dame Fighting Irish v University of Georgia Bull Dogs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The Cocktail Party is not often in November. One of the few times the rivalry game has fallen out of October a pretty incredible thing happened.

It was November 8th, 1980 and a team from Georgia was about to pull off one of the most incredible results in the history of college football.

No, I’m not talking about Georgia.

I’m talking about Tech.

That November afternoon is steeped in my parents’ memory like nothing else. They tell me the story of being there as Scott went into the endzone and the story of one of their dear friends who couldn’t bear to look because he thought the whole season was coming apart.

But the other story they tell, without fail, every time we talk about the 1980 Cocktail Party is the story of walking into the game.

Sometime before they reached their seats they were stopped by a man in red and black with a crazed look in his eyes. He grabbed hold of both of them and then shouted news that not a single damn one of their group of friends could have possibly imagined. It was an impossible thing to say. It could not be real. The laws of physics and nature and morality could not bear it to be true. But he shouted it at them all the same:

Tech tied Notre Dame.”

My parents thought he was on drugs.

They thought that until someone else stopped them and said the same thing. But again, it was the Cocktail Party, they were obviously just drunk. But then they reached their seats and they heard it begin to spread. I like to imagine the scene outside the stadium for all those who didn’t have a ticket. I like to think about the sound of people running from their radios to tell their tailgaiting neighbors who were already running from their radios to tell someone else. I like to think of the whoops and woofs and sounds of hands slapping into one another started to fill the air that afternoon in Duval County.

It began to dawn on my parents that this was real when people in red and black were hugging each other like news that the tide of some terrible war had at last been turned.

The University of Georgia, who had been stuck in the middle tier of college football since the days of World War II, was now the only undefeated, untied team in the country. Georgia was going to pass Notre Dame in the rankings, and if they could just hold on a few more games they would meet them, surely, for the national championship.

It was and still is one of the most remarkable results in college football history—a bunch of beaten down fourth-stringers from a Tech team held together by spare parts and Bill Curry’s hair managed to tie the legendary Dan Devine and an Irish team made up of the finest athletes midwestern corn could grow.

So much wrapped up in that one little piece of information, shouted by an inebriated guy with a chaos in his eyes, spreading, like some sort of prophet, the word of a new day dawning:

Tech tied Notre Dame.

Georgia and Notre Dame are not connected often in the college football world, but when they are big shifts tend to be happening.

Georgia won its first national title in 1942. Notre Dame’s string of national titles would begin the year after, winning in ‘43, ‘46, ‘47, and ‘49 under head coach Frank Leahy. Wally Butts, Georgia’s coach during the same time, had the Dawgs undefeated in 1946, but had the misfortune of carrying that out in the year where Notre Dame and Army both went undefeated, apart from the time that they played each other to a 0-0 tie in Yankee Stadium. The Butts era would fade into the long wait all Dawg fans are familiar with, and Notre Dame would go on to win almost half a dozen more national titles before 1980.

This weekend Georgia and Notre Dame meet under similar era-defining circumstances.

Both teams seem to be faced with the same two questions and either question could be true: “is this it?” and “is this all there is?”

For Georgia, the former weighs more heavily on the minds than the latter, and Kirby Smart has earned that. This feels like “it” in some major sense of the word. This feels like an era you will tell people you were there for, and even if the only thing Kirby ever did was win the Rose Bowl that surely would’ve been enough to merit telling the story. But there feels like there is more there—a lot more. And one of the surest ways to test that is to play a team like Notre Dame—a team that on paper they should beat—at home in a big game.

But the latter question still looms too. The idea that despite all this power and all this momentum and all of the speculation that this year will finally be our year—that really this is all there is. The wait is the only thing that is real.

That could very well be true, and if it turns out to be true you know that I will find a soul-crushing way to tell you about it. But, for now, we seem justified to focus on the former.

For Notre Dame, an appeal to the former question feels like self-deception. Notre Dame’s flailing efforts to return to the limelight continue to test one of the truest statements about America—that a group of affluent and committed white people can eventually fail upward into whatever they want, no matter the circumstances.

Notre Dame has thrown more money at the problem than anyone can really measure. And frankly no one is quite certain what the problem is. It might be that Notre Dame isn’t in a conference at a time when the storylines, the debates, and the trajectories of the entirety of the college football world are set by conferences.

Notre Dame also simply can’t contend with the machine of Southern recruiting. Or they can’t quite develop the talent they do recruit. Or they can’t quite develop an identity or a culture or or or or or. All of these clichés and phrases that we use to gesture broadly at a complicated human reality we know must have an objectively true solution, but one that we’ll never be able to actually get at.

To try and say what is wrong with Notre Dame is like looking outside at the rain. I ask you, “what did you see?” and you say, “rain.” And then I say, “how many raindrops did you see?” And you pause, because you can’t count them….but you saw all of them, right?

Brian Kelly has been a balm for a team that, by all accounts, has looked like it wanted to implode for good at least two or three times in the past decade.

The toughest thing for Notre Dame fans, and the members of the media who perhaps wax nostalgic about reading Grantland Rice memorializing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for the first time, is that this really might be all there is.

Notre Dame might pull itself into the top ten occasionally thanks to their unquestionable advantage in perception. They might even beat Georgia on Saturday and really flirt with a return to glory. But one wonders if this is all there really is, at least for the forseeable future—getting buoyed by the perception of Notre Dame as the godfather of modern football only to be reintroduced, in the most public and humiliating fashion, to the true reality of modern football now.

Brian Kelly took a defense full of some of his only five-star recruits of the past decade to the national title game in 2012, and they were absolutely decimated by Alabama and lucky, frankly, that Saban called off the dogs late in the game. They were similarly routed late by Clemson last season in a game that I fear had most pundits growing leery of ever trusting an 11-1 or even a 12-0 Notre Dame again.

There are only so many times that Notre Dame can do this before the reality of the latter question sets in—that this really is all there is. That Notre Dame, the King of the Kings of Football is now something like a middle of the road Big Ten team.

Still, the odd thing about the game is the former question is always in play, too. Kelly has them back in the top ten, they have recruited about as well as they can, and they have a favorable schedule if they can get by Georgia and beat Virginia. This could be another “it” in a series of “its” that is only rivaled by the likes of Alabama.

But Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a team in the AP Top 5 in fourteen years. They only have two wins against such teams in the past twenty years. Over the past decade Notre Dame is 18-20 against ranked teams and 3-12 against Top Ten teams. And you could make the argument that those numbers are as good as they are because Notre Dame doesn’t often play ranked opponents, and the ones they do play tend to be of questionable quality.

And perhaps it is fitting that Notre Dame comes to Georgia to try and work out some of this cosmic baggage since a Georgia fan will surely be the one to tell you that there is reason to hope.

No, we Georgia fans know the truth all too well. In this game, you can just keep falling. You think you’re done when Spurrier leaves and then all of a sudden they’ve hired Urban Meyer. You think the time is right for Richt after ‘07 and Nick Saban comes to town.

You can always keep falling.

So two teams obsessed with their collective destinies—both eternal and athletic—will meet on the field to work all of this out.

Two teams held captive by the echoes of their past—either a past of tragic fate or the burden of a past you can never live up to—will crash into each other in primetime on CBS.

And I am sure nothing weird will happen at all.