- Is Notre Dame for real? There's a lot to like out of the Irish's 5–1 start, but Saturday's USC game is when their season truly begins.
This time last season, Notre Dame was headed into its bye week with a 2–5 record, coming off a 10–3 loss to NC State in a downpour and a 17–10 home loss to Stanford that sent the Irish’s season into crisis and increased the volume of the criticism directed at head coach Brian Kelly. Quarterback DeShone Kizer had thrown three interceptions and no touchdowns in those two losses. The bye, it turned out, would prove little help for the Irish, which edged Miami in South Bend but finished the year 4–8 with one-possession losses to Navy and Virginia Tech, capped by a 45–27 loss to USC in the Coliseum.
A year later, coming off a similarly placed midseason bye, Notre Dame is at a different type of crossroads, at 5–1 with a Week 2 loss to a Georgia team that’s off to a 7–0 start and ranked No. 3 in the nation. The Irish’s five wins have come against teams that range from feisty (No. 18 Michigan State and Boston College) to rudderless (North Carolina and Miami-Ohio), making the Georgia game the most relevant data point pundits have to go on at midseason. The slim margins that decided the Georgia game—the Bulldogs won 20–19 on a last-minute field goal set up by a strip-sack of Brandon Wimbush with 1:27 left—have gotten more impressive every week. (Georgia’s next-closest victory to date is a 21-point win over Appalachian State in Week 1.)
Soon there will be no need for guesswork: Notre Dame has one of the toughest second-half schedules of any national contender, starting when the No. 11 Trojans arrive in South Bend this weekend. USC isn’t the powerhouse it was thought to be early this season, having ground out wins over middle-of-the-road teams like Cal, Texas and most recently Utah, but they’re still 6–1, a step (or two, or three) ahead of the Spartans, who as of now are the best win on Notre Dame’s résumé. Beating the Trojans would mark the Irish’s first win over a ranked opponent since they beat then-No. 21 Temple on Oct. 31, 2015, and as good an indication as any that they will factor into the calculations for this year’s marquee bowl games, if not the College Football Playoff.
The Irish take on another Top 25 team the following week in NC State, which is 6–1 and ranked No. 16 entering its bye. The next week they play Wake Forest—which counts as the closest thing to a respite even though the Demon Deacons have significantly improved this year—before traveling to Miami (currently ranked eighth and unbeaten), hosting Navy (which was ranked No. 25 last week before losing to Memphis) and ending the regular season at No. 22 Stanford, resurgent after two September losses thanks to Heisman candidate Bryce Love.
Come mid-November, there will be no doubt about who the Irish are. They are one of three teams in the country with four current Top 25 opponents still left on the schedule. (Maryland and Georgia Tech are the other two, and neither has as much on the line.) In August, this six-week stretch looked like a nightmare. Now, it still looks unpleasant—but it also holds the potential to reward the Irish in a big way. A second loss doesn’t doom their New Year’s Six chances with so many quality wins left on the table.
And on the back of the nation’s No. 15 scoring defense and No. 5 rushing attack, Notre Dame looks built to contend with this year’s top teams. Running back Josh Adams is averaging 129.3 yards per game (seventh in FBS) and a whopping 9.0 yards per carry. With junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush calling the signals, the run game sets up the passing game, and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit has created 14 turnovers so far. If Notre Dame keeps up the standard it’s set in the first half of the season, the playoff committee could have a tricky decision on its hands six weeks from now.