The season is halfway done, and several of the questions that surrounded the Notre Dame football team after last year’s disastrous 4-8 campaign have been answered.
The Fighting Irish offense, led by first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, has proven that it can put points on the scoreboard, thanks to one of the country’s most dominant rushing attacks.
The defense has shown it is much improved, no longer susceptible to the devastating big plays that plagued last year’s unit.
Those improvements have led to a 5-1 record for the Irish, the last three wins coming by a combined 107 points. Entering the team’s bye week, there’s a buzz surrounding the team — some analysts and fans have even brought up the “P” word: Playoff.
But the big question — the question that always seems to haunt Kelly’s Notre Dame teams — remains. Can Notre Dame come through, down the stretch, in a must-win game against a highly-ranked team?
This year’s Irish team will have plenty of chances to prove it can.
Following Notre Dame’s bye, No. 13 USC comes to South Bend. The next week, it’ll be No. 20 N.C. State. After a brief reprieve against an unranked — though potentially dangerous — Wake Forest team, Notre Dame closes the season with games against No. 11 Miami, No. 25 Navy and No. 23 Stanford.
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which ranks teams and predicts their success going forward based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season, Notre Dame has the fourth-most difficult remaining schedule of any team in the country.
Notre Dame fans should regard the rugged second-half slate with both optimism and dread.
The good news: the Irish face a massive opportunity. If Notre Dame, currently ranked No. 10 in the FPI, were to win out and end the season 11-1 with a high strength of schedule and its lone loss coming against Georgia, which has steamrolled its first three SEC opponents, the Irish would seem a virtual lock to make the four-team College Football Playoff. Even if the Irish lose to one of those ranked opponents, they would likely receive a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl with a 10-2 record.
The bad news: winning out is unlikely. The FPI gives Notre Dame a 10.3 percent chance to do so.
In order to beat those odds, the Irish will have to do something Notre Dame teams have struggled to accomplish in recent years — and they’ll have to do it nearly every week.
Since the Irish’s 2012 run to the national championship game, the team has won one game against a ranked opponent in the second half of the regular season. That game was against then-No. 21 Temple in 2015 — a team that turned out far worse than its ranking indicated. (The Owls lost three of their last six regular season games and ended the year with a 15-point loss to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl.)
During that span, the Irish have gone a combined 1-6 against top 25 teams in their final six games on the schedule.
Whether or not this year’s team is talented enough to change that narrative remains to be seen.
In Notre Dame’s only game so far against a top-25 opponent, the Irish blew a fourth-quarter lead and then lost a fumble on a potential game-winning possession, leading to a one-point loss to a Georgia team the Irish appeared to outplay. On the other hand, Michigan State has moved into the rankings after upsetting No. 7 Michigan, and Notre Dame dominated the Spartans, winning by 20 in East Lansing.
One thing is for sure: with each win Notre Dame picks up against a ranked team, each game the Irish move closer to being 11-1, the hype already surrounding the team will amplify exponentially. If Notre Dame still has one loss when the first official playoff rankings are released on Oct. 31, the pressure from fans hoping this is finally the team that proves Notre Dame football is “back” might feel more daunting to Kelly and the Irish than whatever top-25 opponent is next on the schedule.
Is this Notre Dame team up to the challenge?
The upcoming schedule will reveal that soon enough.
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