If there’s been a knock on Notre Dame football over the last several years—and let’s face there have been quite a few—perhaps the foremost is that the Irish have been a little soft. The defense in general was not very good and in particular, the team’s ability to match up in a physical battle was decidedly in doubt. On Saturday night in East Lansing, Notre Dame sent a clear message that this year’s team is different. Michigan State brought a good offensive line and big punishing back in Le’Veon Bell into the game. They scored only three points as a veteran front seven on the Irish defense turned in a shutdown effort. With Notre Dame now 3-0, is this team capable of making a major bowl game for the first time since 2006 and winning one for the first time since 1993?
The short answer to the question is yes, they are at least good enough to make a BCS game. Keep in mind there are four at-large bids given beyond the six automatic spots that go to conference champs. No league can have more than one extra bid, so you have room to concede one to the SEC and Pac-12 and still have room to spare. But Notre Dame is going to need at least nine wins, and possibly ten, to be in position to grab one of those spots. Against a normal schedule, they would likely get there, but an NBC-friendly slate is not necessarily conducive to piling up wins.
And while Notre Dame has made admirable improvement in defending the run and taking care of the ball on offense, a young secondary has not been seriously tested. Michigan State has question marks at quarterback. Looking at the other teams ND has beaten, Navy is a triple-option team and no one knows what to make of Purdue. The fact the Irish needed a late field goal to beat a historically mediocre program at home could be seen as a big red flag. Or we could note that Purdue has played very well in its tune-ups against bad MAC teams and that Notre Dame was in a jet lag spot after coming home from Dublin, and conclude that it was pretty good. We won’t really know until we have a better handle on how good Purdue is.
So let’s take a mindset that this an improved team running the ball and defending the run, while acknowledging they haven’t been challenged by a good passing offense, nor has their own freshman quarterback Everett Golson been forced to play at the rapid pace that resulted in a lot of Notre Dame turnovers a year ago. And with that backdrop, let’s take a look at what Notre Dame has ahead…
It’s a home date with Michigan coming up. We’re going to preview this Saturday night game in more detail when TheSportsNotebook does its customary Friday prep for the marquee matchups. But Denard Robinson has scorched Notre Dame in his career in Ann Arbor and we’ll find out quickly just how different this Notre Dame defense really is.
Then after a bye week its home games with Miami, Stanford and BYU. In spite of the sex appeal of an ND-Miami matchup for those who remember the 1987-1990 epics, the Hurricanes aren’t very good and the bye week should prevent any letdown from the Irish. Stanford’s win over USC has ratcheted up the impact of their game in South Bend, but the Cardinal is a similar team to Michigan State—question marks at quarterback and a tough running game. Notre Dame now knows they can match up. The visit by BYU declined in importance when the Cougars lost at Utah—I thought it had the potential to be a winner-take-all battle for a BCS bid among the two independents. But unless Riley Nelson gets a lot more consistent, BYU won’t have the passing game to challenge ND in the secondary.
Oklahoma awaits at the end of October and there’s no question how much the pass defense will be challenged by Landry Jones and a Sooner aerial game playing on its home turf. If Notre Dame has only one loss, or is undefeated at this point, OU-ND will have national championship implications and we should probably prepare ourselves for some “Game Of The Century” rhetoric from the media. The jury is still out on Oklahoma right now, mainly because they haven’t been tested. Sitting here in mid-September, I’d be very surprised if Notre Dame came out of Norman with a win.
A home game with Pitt to start the November stretch drive looks less easy after the Panthers dismantled Virginia Tech, and Pitt should get better as the year progresses under new coach Paul Chryst. An ensuing road date with Boston College looks manageable, as the Eagle program appears in decline. Then it’s back home to play Wake Forest. It’s possible the Demon Deacons could get Tanner Price and the passing game going enough to present a challenge. It’s also possible the 52-zip beatdown they took at Florida State, with Price throwing for 82 yards is a sign of things to come. Either way, if we can’t count on a Notre Dame home win over Wake, there’s zero point in having any discussion about major bowl chances in South Bend.
Finally it’s the season-ender at USC. The Trojan loss at Stanford has made this game look more winnable than it was, but until we see tangible evidence that the ND secondary can come through, there is no reason to pick them to win on the road against Matt Barkley. A more optimistic outlook might say that the Trojans will be coming off a game against UCLA that looks very tough and possibly looking ahead to the Pac-12 Championship Game the following week. As hard it is to think Notre Dame could ever be overlooked, I’m sure that’s the one game of such a sequence that Lane Kiffin could live with losing.
Notre Dame can absorb losses at Oklahoma and USC, the two teams that are not only the best, but ideally suited to exploit any pass defense deficiency in South Bend. Conversely, Notre Dame matches up well in the key home games with Stanford and BYU. It would seem then, that the major bowl push is more about keeping focus week-to-week and doing something like drop a game in Boston College or to improving Pitt, which would not happen if the Irish are prepared to play those games. Even if ND lost to Michigan and ended up 9-3, they would still look attractive to a major bowl considering what’s likely to be poor alternatives among runner-ups in the Big Ten, Big East & ACC. And if ND wins Saturday night and takes care of its business the rest of the way? Then we’re talking 10-2, a lock for a major bowl and the USC game would be about national title implications.
So to bring us full circle, what are Notre Dame’s BCS chances? As tough as the schedule is, as much as I do see the weaknesses, as much as I didn’t really believe in this team at the start of the year, we’d have to say they’re looking pretty good.