Leftovers & Links: Virginia Tech provides Notre Dame a flexible roadmap

Virginia Tech opener
ACC Media
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Saturday chaos somehow matched Notre Dame’s uncertainty this weekend. The exact status of the Irish roster’s needed coronavirus testing and contract tracing is not known at the moment — no pressing game reduces the impetus for the program to release its current figures — but the passing of a weekend without its scheduled game being played underscores the natural concern around when Notre Dame will return to the practice field and thus ready for Florida State’s arrival Oct. 10.

The noun “concern” is chosen intentionally, a notch more optimistic on the spectrum than “worry.” This moment has and will befall many programs this season, hence the ACC building three weeks into the season for flexibility and the SEC focusing on only conference games. This is the Irish turn, and while worry about the lost practice time and the full availability of the roster for the Seminoles’ visit in two weeks is understandable, those are mere trivialities compared to the hopes of simply playing the game.

Those worries proved unfounded for Virginia Tech on Saturday, when the Hokies finally fielded enough of a team to take the field. Virginia Tech had postponed its first two games due to a coronavirus outbreak and its subsequent contact tracing. Even in the days leading up to the twice-over rescheduled opener, Hokies head coach Justin Fuente offered open pessimism about playing Saturday.

“We will not have a full roster,” he said last Monday. “I hope we’re able to play.”

Down 23 players, including its starting quarterback, not to mention both the defensive coordinator and his first option as a replacement, Virginia Tech trounced North Carolina State, 45-24.

“I’m just really proud of our group,” Fuente said afterward. “To say that we’ve been through a lot before our first game would be an understatement. Between guys being out and making it back the day before the game, or the day of the game, or guys coming back on Wednesday, coaches not making it …”

Given how Fuente continued to list off examples of frustrating timing, it is safe to presume if the Hokies had tried to play a week or two ago, they would have been missing more than 23 players. The figure sticks out because it is the presumed minimum Notre Dame is currently without, the last figure released six days ago. Basic logic suggests more Irish are absent by now, but in the coming week, some players should start matriculating back into availability.

It is not an ideal timeline, obviously, but if Virginia Tech proved anything, it is that such a stretch does not need to torpedo a season. The Hokies went from afterthought to ACC darkhorse in one fell swoop, their domination of the Wolfpack so thorough, despite the loss of conditioning catching Fuente’s eye toward the end of the blowout.

“We got off to a good start,” he said. “I felt like we kind of lost our wind, which is what I was worried about. We hadn’t played and practice has been limited the last several weeks. I was really worried about our conditioning and it was pretty evident.”

Of course, these worries and concerns are all par for this season, one already rife with the unpredictable.

And the only instance of positive tests or contact tracing impacting the largest upsets was on the behalf of a winner: Kansas State was without eight players in its two-deep, including three defensive backs, yet the Wildcats picked off Oklahoma star freshman quarterback Spencer Rattler three times to top the No. 3 Sooners.

That Big 12 absurdity may have more to do with Notre Dame than first glance suggests. The conference’s outward appearance is already a weak one thanks to Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas all losing to Sun Belt teams a couple weeks ago. Now with only intra-conference games remaining, the Big 12 has no further way to impress the College Football Playoff committee. Toppling Oklahoma from the ranks of the unbeaten not only diminishes the Sooners’ chances of reaching the Playoff, but it also hurts any Texas hopes, having reduced the volume of what would be its biggest win.

The Big 12 is not outright eliminated from the Playoff chase, but the Irish have to feel better about their chances after watching this weekend from home, presuming they can indeed get back on the field before too long.

This is all applicable in a normal season, but with so many fewer games this year, the impact of each misstep is amplified.

Notre Dame may not get to 12 games this season, be it through its own fault or an opponent or two canceling down the line. Reasonable minds never assumed the revised schedule would be played as announced. They simply built in flexibility to play as much of it as possible.

That flexibility has the entire Irish schedule still on the calendar, with just one piece reorganized. It allowed Virginia Tech to get closer-to-whole before beginning, and in doing so, off to a resounding 1-0 start with, again, no canceled games just yet, only shuffled ones.

The flexibility worked.

As this three-week pause continues, perhaps a mailbag is in order. Please fire off your questions to insidetheirish@gmail.com. They don’t even have to be football-related at this point. It’s a three-week pause in the season; we’re allowed to get a little weird.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame cannot mask expectations
Notre Dame’s Opponents: South Florida postponement a foreboding sign
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Irish wave goodbye to Michigan, 31-0, in 2014

COVERAGE OF NOTRE DAME’S OUTBREAK:
Notre Dame cancels practice due to COVID-19 positives
Notre Dame postpones Wake Forest game
Inevitable postponement to Dece. 12 tilts, but shouldn’t topple, Irish season

OUTSIDE READING:
Four teams that saw their Playoff chances shrink with the Big Ten returning to play
The Big 12 is in big trouble and other takeaways from week 4
Big Ten and Pac-12 return to most unusual poll
College football SP+ rankings after Week 4
AP Top 25 Takeaways: LSU gets Air Raided; No. 3 OU upset
A top 10 of those who have played