Aside from absolute power corrupting absolutely as it does in all parts of life, there are no absolutes in college football. No single game serves as the dividing line for any one program. Not even if No. 6 Notre Dame heads to No. 24 Virginia Tech and capitalizes on a chance to silence the echoes of road failures past and establish itself as undeniably a leading contender for the College Football Playoff.
For that matter, a loss would not condemn the Irish (5-0) to a decade of spinning wheels. It is but one piece of a broader view.
There are four general outcomes available for any weekend: a blowout loss, a close loss, a close win and a blowout win.
If Notre Dame repeats its experience from Miami last November, that will not inherently be an indictment of the entire program. It will not mean Irish head coach Brian Kelly needs to be shown the door immediately — something that needs not even be discussed following this season by any logical corner of the fan base.
Rather, it will highlight both the difficulties of going on the road and winning in college football and the difficulty of attaining the excellence needed to run the gamut in any given season. Even Alabama, for all its sustained success and utter dominance of the sport, has lost on the road in three of the last five seasons, shockingly adding a home loss in 2015.
If Notre Dame loses in a close game, perhaps a one-possession margin decided in the final six or seven minutes, that will not be a failure rendering this season meaningless. Aside from Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, no program can enter a season thinking a Playoff entry is more likely than not. Even at this point, it is more likely each of those teams loses than it is they go undefeated. Given the standard they have set, though, they could still reach the Dec. 29 semifinals.
One should not need to see the Lane Stadium result to know the Irish are not on that level. That is more a testament to the trio’s success than it is a criticism of Notre Dame.
If the Irish manage a tight win, a la against Michigan in the opener but a bit more impressive being on the road, it will not be proof junior quarterback Ian Book is that much superior to senior Brandon Wimbush. That seems to have already been established. And it will not be a sign the Notre Dame program has taken the next step, now able to win on the road against quality opposition. If one game is all that is needed for that metric, then that happened last year with a 38-18 trouncing at Michigan State, unranked in September but ending the season at No. 15.
The victories against measuring sticks Michigan and Stanford serve as the needed proof of Kelly moving the program forward. Season openers against quality opposition are rarely blowouts, but the Irish controlled the tilt with the Wolverines nonetheless, never trailing. Those are the programs Notre Dame sees annually (or at least frequently) and competes with off the field for recruits. Add a win over USC after Thanksgiving and that three-game sample size will mean much more than just three times as much as a tight victory at Virginia Tech.
And if the Irish trounce the Hokies, that will neither invalidate the win as one over an overrated opponent nor establish Notre Dame as a national title contender. Virginia Tech keeping the pressure on Miami to win the ACC’s Coastal division will determine the worthiness of the Hokies as a résumé builder. In other words, an eight-game sample size against comparable teams rather than a one-off where one mishap can readily snowball.
Bluntly, the Irish are not title contenders yet. The sport’s upper echelon is that far removed from the rest. One needs either a transcendent talent (see: Mayfield, Baker; Murray, Kyler; possibly Grier, Will) or years of challenging at that level to warrant inclusion among contenders considerations. Even with a game-changer at quarterback, which Book has not shown himself to be, the format of the College Football Playoff still tilts the equation toward the winners of its first four renditions. Beating two of them in back-to-back weeks is a task accomplished only if Auburn playing both games at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Notre Dame should beat Virginia Tech. It should win a primetime game against a ranked opponent on the road on national television. It should head into November with dreams daring to persist.
Doing so should not change how optimistic one should be about the direction the Irish are trending. Failing to do so would not mean the program has stalled. No one game dictates things so absolutely.