With bye week behind, next four Saturdays will define season

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Notre Dame enjoyed a Saturday off, a casual observer on a crazy weekend that served as the first shakeup of the season. But as Brian Kelly prepares his team for Syracuse, he’ll start a four-week stretch that’ll likely define Notre Dame’s season.

The Irish sit comfortably inside the AP Top Ten, no longer a measurement that means anything from a bowl perspective, but one that quantifies just how lofty the expectations could become for the 2014 season. But that ranking won’t mean anything if Notre Dame doesn’t play its best football over these next four weeks, each Saturday carrying immense importance.

Just about every fan has circled battles with Stanford and Florida State. But Kelly and his staff will likely keep the focus on Syracuse alone this week, with the Irish traveling outside the state of Indiana for the first time this season, playing a not-quite away game on Saturday night in MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Saturday, the Irish will face a Syracuse team that managed to out-gain Maryland by over 200 yards and rack up 589 total yards on offense, but still found a way to lose by two touchdowns. The Orange will test Notre Dame with a strong ground game, powered not just by a two-headed running back duo, but by the legs of quarterback Terrel Hunt. Scott Shafer’s team may have stubbed their toe against the Terps, but they’ve turned Saturday’s game into one of the highlights of their season.

“It’s not just a nationally televised game, it’s an event,” Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said of the game against Notre Dame. “It’s an incredible event. It’s like a mini bowl game in the middle of the season. So to say that it’s significant is an understatement.”

The last time the Irish played Syracuse, Greg Robinson was managing to ruin Notre Dame’s Senior Day in 2008, with the Orange scoring 14 fourth-quarter points to shock the Irish 24-23. While nobody on the Irish roster was there for that terrible day in Notre Dame Stadium, it’s a sobering reminder that every game counts.

And as we await Kelly’s Tuesday press conference, there are plenty of updates worth tracking. First, the rumored shakeup along the offensive line. Will Christian Lombard be Notre Dame’s starting right tackle again after a two-season hiatus? And will Nick Martin move out from center, reshaping the interior of the offensive line with Steve Elmer and Matt Hegarty also shifting?

From an injury perspective, an update on Amir Carlisle looms large. The Irish’s slot receiver has been a key cog in the Irish offense, finding a home and playing incredibly productive as one of Everett Golson’s favorite targets. We’ll likely get our first look at Torii Hunter as well, with a groin injury healed and Hunter capable of helping out in the slot if Carlisle is unable to go. Senior captain Austin Collinsworth also should be rounding into form, four weeks after suffering a knee injury that had a 4-6 week timetable.

Of course, Kelly can expect to be asked about his five players still held out from football activities. With an academic investigation that’s been closed for weeks, the Honor Code process creeps into truly unexplainable territory. Getting clarity and a resolution — not to mention some key contributors potentially back on the field for this four-game run — would be a huge deal.

With the chance to start 4-0 for only the third time since the turn of the century, the stakes turn up in October. But before the focus turns to Stanford or a trip to Tallahassee, the Irish need to take care of business Saturday night. It’s another exciting test for a young football team that’s playing past expectations.