Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory at Michigan State had only just gone final when the phone buzzed. Thinking it was a neighbor offering a beverage, I made the mistake of quickly checking the blinking blue light.
“What is the legitimate ceiling for the team this year?”
Usually a level-headed fan, Corey had let the Irish rout go to his head. It took great restraint for me not to respond with only the obvious, “Clearly, it’s 11-1.”
That would have been tongue-in-cheek, but it could also be an acknowledgement of college football. Remember Tennessee a season ago? Auburn in 2013? Even Notre Dame in 2012? If a total of three breaks happen to have perfect timing, the sample size occasionally seems to remove the ceiling.
With that in mind, the more important question may be, “What is the genuine floor for the team this year?” Sure, fans do not like to think about the lower end of expectations, and setting the floor becomes complicated when considering potential injuries. Nonetheless, if asking about the ceiling, wondering about the floor should logically be in the same conversation.
For the first time in at least two years and more likely a minimum of five, Notre Dame delivered a complete performance against the Spartans. Asked if the Irish have been closer to a “championship-level performance” than Saturday’s showing, head coach Brian Kelly mused it had been awhile.
“[In 2015] we had some, we just couldn’t sustain it for a long period of time,” he said Tuesday. “The mindset is closer here with this group. We’re closing in on that mindset in terms of start-to-finish, and we’ll need to continue to have that and grow with that.”
Discussing that four-syllable c-word may imply a metric for the height of a rafter. Rather, look beyond the generic description and consider the version of the Irish seen in East Lansing as the new bar Notre Dame can reach every week. If an opponent clears it, then perhaps the Irish will be outplayed, but that is no longer the common occurrence it was last year and, frankly, in parts of 2015 and further back.
“From our perspective, this is really about living up to our standard that we’ve established within our program and how we play the game,” Kelly said.
More pertinent to Corey’s actual question, this all may be too reactionary to beating a flawed Michigan State. Yes, it is a Mark Dantonio-coached team and there is no version of this thought process which diminishes the Spartans to an after-thought, a speed bump or any other dismissive noun. Michigan State is not, however, a team poised to challenge for a Big Ten title.
To properly gauge how high Notre Dame’s ceiling is, one must know how high Michigan State’s is, because that may be the Irish floor for 2017. This week and next week will give that Spartan outlook (vs. Iowa; at Michigan).
But it’s Friday and the Iowa result is not in yet. (Typically, that latter half is a political phrase.)
Notre Dame’s ceiling is lower than Georgia’s. That much is clear. That game may have come down to one play here (the questionable personal foul called on Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara) or there (the false start in the red zone by freshman right tackle Rob Hainsey), but overall, the Bulldogs outplayed Notre Dame.
Georgia could be a playoff contender, though. (See Item No. 4 here to realize just how smooth the Bulldogs’ schedule is the rest of the season.)
Let’s take the bold leap and grant the Irish are not a playoff contender. The passing game led by junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has not been consistent. Notre Dame’s passing defense has yet to be challenged. There are still four big tests to come, two each at home in October and on the road in November.
This early in the season, a conservative answer to Corey’s question may presume the Irish split those games. In years past, assuming Notre Dame would lose an additional game, one it shouldn’t by all accounts, would hold merit. After seeing two thumpings of physical opponents on the road, pessimists should not lean on that crutch anymore. The floor has been raised.
That equals a 9-3 record with two strong wins and three losses in tough matchups, at least one of which was competitive. If the other two are, as well, that theoretical three-month stretch would be all a Notre Dame fan could have realistically hoped for entering the season.
So nothing has changed, right?
Wrong. The bare minimum is not so minimal anymore.
Before the season, 2016’s performances were the strongest available indicator of what to expect. That does not mean 4-8 should have been the mark to improve upon — last year’s team was more in line with a 7-5 or 8-4 record. It does mean there was no tangible reason to think the Irish were physically ready to be a top-flight team.
After two thumpings of physical opponents on the road, there is reason.
That benchmark makes it hard to think Notre Dame will be played off the field by an offensively-questionable North Carolina State or a disappointing Stanford. It makes it difficult to envision Miami finding the firepower to challenge the thermometer for the high mark on Nov. 11. That baseline establishes a standard USC is more likely to stay only just above rather than blow by, though it does need to be said the Trojans have the pure talent to race away from all comers. (That disclaimer may not age well tonight.)
Notre Dame’s ceiling in 2017 remains a cut below the cream of the crop. It is, however, high enough to force the cream to rise to the top. The Irish floor is now high enough, some opponents should not be able to reach even it. That is quite a change from just a month ago.
Lest that be forgotten: The season is only a month old. It is still September. This is a young Irish team. All but seven contributing players are likely to be back next year. Sticking to the current calendar, those players can improve dramatically yet this season. By the time Notre Dame heads to Florida, Wimbush will have more than doubled his playing time to date, presuming health.
The ceiling may nor rise much more before facing USC, but it is possible it has not reached its peak yet this year. The Irish have already raised the floor.
Now try to stay off the floor tonight, alright readers? No one likes that friend, least of all the downstairs neighbor.