Notre Dame has come a long way as a program the last three seasons. There have been a few aberrations (2002, 2005, 2012), but the previous two decades were an exercise in mediocrity.
Over the last three seasons, however, Notre Dame has gone 33-6 and put together its first stretch of three straight 10-plus win seasons since Lou Holtz strung together a similar stretch from 1991 to 1993 (31-5-1).
There are holes you can poke in the success of the last three seasons, and I’ve done so. Notre Dame is only 8-6 against opponents that finished ranked in the Top 25. The Irish have beat up on inferior opponents, going 25-0 against opponents that finished unranked.
Notre Dame is just 4-4 against opponents that finished ranked in the Top 15, and under head coach Brian Kelly the Irish are 0-3 in the last three seasons against opponents that finished ranked in the Top 10.
Kelly’s teams have been dominant at home in recent seasons, going 19-1 inside Notre Dame Stadium the last three seasons, and the Irish are in the midst of an 18-game home winning streak. But Notre Dame is just 14-5 away from home, and the Irish have lost three straight games away from home against ranked opponents.
Those realities have kept Notre Dame from truly jumping into the upper echelon of the college football world, but that is what makes the 2020 season so potentially impactful for Notre Dame.
The schedule is set up perfectly for the Irish to earn multiple statement wins, and it is set up to give the Irish a chance to overcome negative trends.
The only way Kelly and his staff can get the program back to the College Football Playoff is to slay two remaining dragons that stand between it and the promised land of a national championship.
Those final two dragons are beating a Top 10 opponent and being as good away from South Bend as you are at defending your home turf. Slay those dragons and Notre Dame once again becomes an elite program.
From 1988 to 1990, Notre Dame compiled a 33-4 record that included an 8-2 away from home record against ranked opponents (including bowl games). From 1991 to 1993, the Irish away from home record against ranked opponents was 6-2.
From 2017 to 2019, Notre Dame has compiled a 4-5 away from home record against ranked opponents, including three straight losses in such games. Two of those wins came against a 5-loss Northwestern team and a relatively average Syracuse squad.
That is certainly an improvement over the 2-13 away from home record against ranked opponents that Kelly compiled from 2010-2016, but still not close to being good enough.
Let’s look at how Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia stack up against the Irish over the last three seasons.
Alabama is 7-3 away from home against ranked opponents, Clemson is 7-2, Georgia is 8-6, Ohio State is 7-1 and Oklahoma is 8-4.
LSU was 1-5 in 2017 and 2018, but the Tigers went 5-0 away from home against ranked opponents en route to its 2019 national championship.
That group is considered the nation's best at this time, and the three teams with championships in the last six seasons have the best records away from home.
Notre Dame will likely get a shot at beating a Top 10 opponent when Clemson travels to South Bend on November 7. Notre Dame's home dominance and futility against Top 10 opponents will likely get tested that weekend.
When you look at the top opponents on the schedule after Clemson, at least three of the next four toughest games will be away from home. Wisconsin and USC are consistently ranked in preseason Top 25s, with Wisconsin ranking 13th in the Sports Illustrated, ESPN and Pro Football Focus. USC ranked between 16th and 24th in those three rankings.
Pitt returns 17 starters off its 8-5 squad, and not having to play Clemson or Louisville should improve its chances, although road games against North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Miami won’t be easy victories.
Brian Kelly has brought Notre Dame a long way in the last decade, but the Irish are still an almost program. Almost good enough to beat the best teams, almost good enough to compete for championships. If he wants to eliminate that moniker, these are the types of games he must win, assuming those programs are in fact as good as their preseason ranking.
Doing so will also put the Irish on a path to compete for a championship, and that is the final hurdle Kelly must leap.
Be sure to stay locked into Irish Breakdown all the time!