More than one team can deem its season a success each year, and Notre Dame still can in 2019. This is not a binary sport in which 129 teams trudge home while only one raises a trophy.
Want to narrow the field? Fine. A reasonable mind can argue nearly 20 teams had genuine title aspirations in August; that would include the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State, Oregon and Utah, Texas A&M and Auburn. Those may not have all been equally realistic, but each of those locker rooms undoubtedly believed themselves title contenders from the bottoms of their hearts. 19 of them will not outright decree their seasons failures.
Maybe only 10 had a legitimate chance at the College Football Playoff. A&M’s and Auburn’s schedules alone made them longshots, as did conference affiliation for Oregon and Utah. The Irish were one of those 10, but basic math suggested it was more unlikely than otherwise. Missing the Playoff does not make the season a lost cause.
In a sport dictated by net-zero results each week, the season’s verdict does not come down to the same simplistic judgment. No matter what some may argue about what should be expected at Notre Dame, it is not Playoff-or-bust.
That is simply an impractical standard in an era with scholarship limits and a southeastern tilt to the sport. Winning today is harder than ever. For that matter, the Irish have won 19 games in a row against unranked opponents. Only one team can claim a longer streak, some program coached by Nick Saban.
As embarrassing as Saturday’s blowout at Michigan was for Notre Dame and its fans, that was preferable to falling to Duke, North Carolina State, Stanford, Navy and, yes, Virginia Tech in 2016, right?
The Irish are not going to make the Playoff, and Saturday’s humbling should keep them out of Playoff conversations next spring, but it does not reverse the progress made the last three seasons, and it does not render the next month pointless. Run the table in November for the fourth time under Brian Kelly and Notre Dame will reach 10 wins for the third straight season.
Only seven Power Five teams have a chance at reaching double-digit wins for the third consecutive year, the same seven who were the only ones to go back-to-back in 2017 and 2018. Consider that list, in order of winning percentage since 2017: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Notre Dame, Washington.
Going by the numbers, the Irish are closer to No. 3 than to No. 7, but that can shift each week. Just being among those seven is an undeniable sign of consistency.
Consistency is the first step to contending. It may not be glamorous, thrilling or lore-worthy, but it is necessary. It raises a season’s floor such that considering the Playoff becomes reasonable.
Notre Dame no longer has Playoff hopes, clearly, and come summer, those discussions should be tempered, but that does not cease reason for 2019.
Staying in that above grouping of seven will be impressive on its own, something most did not expect from the Irish entering the year. When this space predicted a 10-win season ending in the Cotton Bowl, many deemed it overly optimistic. That has not become a reality yet, but it is still in play.
What was once considered too good to be plausible is still on the table. Notre Dame’s 2019 can yet end well, despite not reaching the Playoff. In fact, the Irish can further cement their place in the sport’s upper reaches.
Suggesting that in the summer would have earned chuckles. Thinking of it two years ago would have elicited laughs. Dreaming of it following 2016 would have been reason to seek a personal evaluation.
If overlooking that, if ignoring the next month, if still wringing one’s hands over Ann Arbor, then somehow remember that sport is built to disappoint by those measures. Joy must be taken in steps, such as consistency and Cotton Bowls, because those theoretically, eventually, possibly someday yield the one binary result that is the best measure of a season.