SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The similarities between Notre Dame this season and the Fighting Irish squad from a decade ago are uncanny enough that it might make some fans a bit uncomfortable heading into Saturday's game against Pittsburgh.
A decade ago, a Notre Dame team that started the season unranked persuaded many college football fans it was for real when it won at then-No. 11 Florida State to improve to 8-0 and rise to a No. 4 ranking. That team was a 10-point underdog when it beat the Seminoles in the eighth game by breaking a second-half tie by scoring 24 straight points to drop Florida State to 84-5-1 in its previous 90 home games.
This year's team has many fans believing it is real after starting the season unranked and winning at then-No. 8 Oklahoma to improve to 8-0 and rise to a No. 4 ranking. The Irish were 10-point underdogs when they beat the Sooners in the eighth game by breaking a second-half tie by scoring 17 straight points to drop Oklahoma to 79-5 in its last 84 home games.
Following that 2002 win, Notre Dame appeared to have an easy path to a BCS. This time, the Irish again appear to have an easy path to a BCS game with a three-game stretch against Pittsburgh (4-4), Boston College (2-6) and Wake Forest (4-4) before the season finale at Southern California (6-2).
As any Irish fan can tell you, the ninth game of the 2002 season was the beginning of the end for then-first-year coach Tyrone Willingham.
The Irish were favored by 10 points, but turned the ball over seven times while wearing green jerseys for motivation and lost 14-7 to Boston College. They then struggled to beat Navy, were trounced 44-13 at USC and lost 28-6 to North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.
Coach Brian Kelly isn't much interested in that history, though.
"History will have no effect on how this team plays," Kelly said. "What will affect how they play is how they prepare during the week. That is what I can control and that's what our players can control. Our focus is on what we can control."
Kelly said he won't use 2002 as a cautionary tale to remind his team to guard against a letdown against a Pitt team that has just as many wins as that Boston College team.
"I don't use history lessons as much as I want them to realize what it takes to win week in and week out," he said. "Look, there will be enough of that out there to kind of get to them. I don't know if that from me is going to change the way we prepare."
Kelly said after the victory over Oklahoma on Saturday the Irish need to avoid looking at the big picture.
"If we start listening to national championship and the BCS, we'll lose a football game," he said. "They're a pretty smart group. They know that if they stick with what we've done and stick with the process of just preparing for Pittsburgh, they'll be fine. But if they start thinking about all those other things and listening, we'll lose."
Linebacker Manti Te'o said the Irish players understand.
"I think once we start paying attention to that, that's when we're going to get in trouble," he said.
But that didn't stop Te'o from answering a question after the Oklahoma victory about whether he thinks the Irish are the best team.
"I think we're on our way. We have a lot of work to do but we're definitely on our way," he said.