The College Football Playoff isn’t in the cards. Not with two early-season losses. Not with the type of defense the Irish are playing. And certainly not with a young roster still learning on the job.
But the season is far from over.
So while some will continue to call for Brian VanGorder’s head or search the head coach’s Twitter likes for the next big off-field controversy, Brian Kelly and his young team have a season to play.
Nobody throws in the towel in mid-September. And there are plenty of ways to turn this season into a success—though it’ll require some recalibrated expectations. Consider this an exercise in that.
With three games of data in hand, let’s take a look at the rest of the Irish schedule, projecting how this season could break week by week.
CATEGORY ONE: GOTTA WINS
Duke (1-2): No, not just because it’s the next one. But because Duke’s season was derailed in late August when quarterback Thomas Sirk reinjured his achilles tendon, ending the senior’s year before it even started. That’s taken some punch out of Duke’s offense and put too much pressure on the team’s undermanned defense. It should be a good Saturday to get a bad taste from the Irish’s mouth.
Army (3-0): This is no cupcake, as Army has been in year’s past. Just look at the damage Army has done in its opening three games, laying it on Temple in the season opener, beating Rice handily and then waxing UTEP. That doesn’t mean that the Shamrock Series game isn’t a must-win, but after watching this defense, you can’t be sure that the Irish will have their option game on point just because they did last season. With a young defense still learning things on the fly, this game is far scarier than ever imagined.
CATEGORY TWO: SHOULD WINS
Syracuse (1-2): Dino Babers’ team isn’t ready for primetime. And they aren’t going to have a true home field advantage. Moving the game into the Meadowlands will take away any of the benefits of the Carrier Dome, though Babers’ hyper-speed offense might have found its footing by then and could make for a long weekend for the Irish.
Any other season and I’d have chalked this game into category one. But after watching the defensive performance against Texas and Michigan State, this one has me worried, especially with a noon start just announced.
Navy (3-0): Ken Niumatalolo is rolling along, even if he’s had to replace starting quarterback Tago Smith. The Midshipmen pulled off a huge upset of Bob Diaco’s UConn team and they keep winning, beating Tulane last weekend to move to 3-0 as well.
They’ll have a week off before playing Air Force, the first of five tough tests before playing the Irish. The game comes just a week after the Irish host Miami, and is a really-early 11:30 kickoff in Jacksonville. The first of back-to-back option games, Navy is almost a game that’ll put immense pressure on both the offense and defense, with the Midshipmen limiting possessions and forcing the Irish defense to take them off the field.
North Carolina State (2-1): I very nearly put this into the 50-50 category, but am keeping it here because of the Wolfpack’s suspect schedule strength. Boise State graduate transfer quarterback Ryan Finley looks like he’ll be a handful for the Irish, already sporting a shiny 6:0 TD:INT ratio. Throw in a big running game and the fact that Dave Doeren is still looking for a big win three years into his run at NC State, and you get the feeling that the Wolfpack faithful will have this one circled on the schedule.
CATEGORY THREE: COIN FLIP
Virginia Tech (2-1): New coach Justin Fuente has started life after Frank Beamer off quite nicely for the Hokies, winning twice in his first three games, including an absolute beat down of Boston College 49-0. It helps that he’s found his quarterback, junior Jerod Evans, a juco transfer who has shaken things up immediately. The Hokies defense seems to be doing good things, with holdover Bud Foster still in Blacksburg. And the mix of attacking defense and opportunistic offense hasn’t felt like a good matchup lately for the Irish.
USC (1-2) This only stays as a coin flip because the Trojans have been the biggest dumpster fire in the country this season. After opening up with an embarrassing stomping at the hands of Alabama, things haven’t gotten much better for Clay Helton. He’s dealt with off-field distractions both serious (sexual assault chargers) and self-inflicted (JuJu Smith-Schuster fighting his teammates), as well as terrible self-discipline on the field. At 1-2 with two lopsided losses already, the hiring of Helton instead of trying to get a fresh start is looking dumber and dumber.
Miami (3-0): Entering the season, this felt like a game the Irish should win, with Mark Richt transitioning the Miami program after finally cutting bait on the Al Golden era. But with Brad Kaaya throwing the football and the Hurricanes taking care of an admittedly cupcake-ish start, consider me a pessimist that the young Irish defense can find a pass rush and good coverage by then.
Again, things will reveal themselves over the next month. For the Irish, they can right the ship. For the Canes, their true talents will be revealed. But the Irish defense will be in the crosshairs that Saturday, with Kaaya the best quarterback on the Irish schedule.
CATEGORY FOUR: SPRING AN UPSET
Stanford (2-0): The Cardinal have been tested early this season and passed swimmingly, grinding out comfortable wins against Kansas State and USC. They feature college football’s best all-around running back and a defense that’s only getting better. They’ll bring a physical attack to South Bend, one that’s much better than the Spartans offense that bludgeoned the Irish in the trenches.
Of course, Notre Dame found a way to slow down Christian McCaffery last season, only to lose when Kevin Hogan lit them up through the air. The Cardinal have three Pac-12 opponents—at UCLA, at No. 9 Washington and Washington State—on the slate before the night kickoff in South Bend, giving us a chance to see just how good new quarterback Ryan Burns is. But the Cardinal defense looks like its back to its stingy ways, and the Irish will need to play a great football game to win this one.