While Notre Dame losing by 27 points in the Cotton Bowl was never expected, a victory was predicted by only the most optimistic, the utterly hopeful. Maybe that derived from the double-digit underdog status, from a healthy respect of Clemson or from knowing two steps remained, not just the one of the BCS era. Whatever the reasoning, a Playoff loss was fretted over for most of the season.
A bye week conversation in October began with wondering, “So who is the best loss we could have to knock [the Irish] out of the Playoff and avoid getting embarrassed by Bama?” Finishing 12-0 rendered that hypothetical moot, but just a week ago, the proverbial Claire worried, “I just don’t want to deal with the headlines again.”
Distracted, tired, about to call it a night, her reference did not quite register. “Huh?”
“Like after 2012, the months of headlines of how overrated Notre Dame is, how it should never have been in the Playoff, how it’s not actually very good,” she explained.
Sure, those narratives have lingered this week, even with Georgia considering the Sugar Bowl optional and Central Florida finally losing. Such is the nature of failing to score even a solitary touchdown. But they should not last into this offseason. Not this time.
That may not be the metric of program progress desired, but it is one, nonetheless.
In just a week, if not less, waäy too early top 25 listings will be released. In three months, spring conversations will begin. A month after that, spring games will yield buzz. By July, the annual preview magazines will begin providing needed content and predictions.
All of those will include the Irish in their top 10, if not their top 5. All of those will discuss Notre Dame as a Playoff contender in 2019.
Even with a No. 14 ranking heading into the 2013 season, that was not the case then. The 42-14 loss to Alabama was that much more dominating.
“I left that [Alabama] game feeling like there was so much work to be done from the inside out, so much development, so much recruiting,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “This felt so much different, like we gave up four big plays that we characteristically don’t give up. …
“With now giving [us] the opportunity to see how [we] need to play in this atmosphere, not flawless but with excellence, we can come back here and win. It’s a real different feeling for me.”
Furthermore, too much was lost from that 2012 unbeaten team, including both Heisman runner-up Manti Te’o and quarterback Everett Golson.
This time around, Notre Dame will return just about everybody outside of the interior (junior cornerback Julian Love’s NFL decision, in particular, yet pending). Replacing two starting defensive tackles, two inside linebackers and a center will not be a small task, but returning up to 16 other starters will make it more manageable. If Trevor Ruhland emerges as the starting center, some will even claim that as 17 starters, including five starting offensive linemen.
Combine that with a schedule with fewer potholes than usual — though the same number of genuine obstacles — and crafting a “the Irish could meet Clemson (or Alabama) again” storyline will be easy next week, in three months, in eight months.
College football as a whole will want that narrative, and not because college football as a whole adores Notre Dame. If the Irish are considered legitimate entering 2019, then their road trips to Georgia (Sept. 21) and Michigan (Oct. 26) take on that much more importance. Along with the two teams atop the sport, that could be a working top five moving forward, order to be debated ad nauseum. Certainly, they will all land in any reasonable top 10.
After those two, the schedule will be much less than usual. If using S&P+ rankings, which grant the luxury of extending through all 130 FBS teams, only four of the top 40 closing this season appear on Notre Dame’s 2019 schedule, the other two being annual foes USC (No. 39) and Stanford (No. 28). That equals the number in the bottom 30, including two to open the season (No. 107 Louisville, No. 104 New Mexico).
A roster largely returning + a reasonable schedule with two marquee matchups + back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins building overall momentum = enough worthwhile factors to soon look past one bad afternoon against a team operating at an entirely different level.
Or, to put it another way, the Irish program as a whole is headed a different direction than it was in 2012, yet it is only two seasons removed from going 4-8. The recovery from that debacle was never going to be quick enough to give Notre Dame a viable chance against this current Clemson juggernaut, but it has at least put the Irish in position to have another chance at the Tigers next season, and even a cynic should recognize as much.
Maybe that results in a 10-2 season with losses in Athens and Ann Arbor, but that would still be a few steps forward from 8-4 with a home loss to Oklahoma and another at unranked Pittsburgh.