November wilt was tough. But in August heat, 9-3 looked about right for uncertain Irish.

It’s not like it’s a surprise.

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As I told you in Notre Dame Insider last week, ``What happens in Palo Alto will determine the perception of how the Irish finished—whether they had one bad night in Miami, or limped through November. And that, when you think about it, is a big deal.’’

And that, when you think about it, is exactly what has happened.

The bloom is off the Irish rose after a November that was more of a downer than their 2-2 record indicates. In one win, they lifted off the pedal and allowed Wake Forest to turn a 48-23 blowout into an ominous 48-37 victory. In the other, they had to scratch and claw past Navy 24-17.

Wins are wins. And Wake and Navy are solid teams. But the signs were there. Notre Dame was a banged-up team that no longer was able to impose its will through a punishing running game and stifling defense.

In the losses, ND’s flaws were exposed. Against an unbeaten Miami, Brandon Wimbush was intercepted three times and lost a fumble. Against a Stanford that will play in the Pac-12 title game, Wimbush threw two more interceptions.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Bottom line: The Irish lost the turnover battle 7-0 to Miami and Stanford. And got drilled 41-8 and 38-20.

In their other 10 games, the Irish were plus-12 in turnovers, among the best in the nation. And came within a one-point loss to Georgia of going 10-0.

The finger pointing starts with Wimbush. But it’s not entirely his fault. He’s a first-year guy, and he played like it. When ND was running wild, it didn’t have to put a QB who was learning on the job into tough situations.

When the running game stalled, due to general ineffectiveness that was magnified by Josh Adams’ nagging leg problem, Wimbush couldn’t pick up the slack against top-notch opponents.

AFTER NEW YEAR’S SIX, EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST CAMPING (WORLD)

And so, Notre Dame, which was tracking for a Cotton Bowl date with high-profile Penn State, now finds itself projcted to play in the Camping World Bowl against corn-fed Iowa State.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the Cyclones in Orlando on Dec. 28. In fact, that would be a very tough matchup. Just ask Oklahoma and TCU, who lost to Iowa State.

On Aug. 28, realistic Irish fans, if offered a 9-3 record, would have been smart to grab it and hold on tight.

Sitting on his off-season hot seat, Brian Kelly had shuffled his coaching-staff deck like a riverboat gambler and drawn a pair of coordinator aces.

Are there better tactical coaches? Yup. Would they have felt some pain when bumps and bruises—and quality opponents—took a toll on the running game and defense? Um-hmm.

Would better coaching have prepared Wimbush to shoulder a bigger load? That’s drawing to an inside straight.

WANTED: BOWL WIN TO CHANGE IRISH NARRATIVE

Here’s a bigger question: What kind of Notre Dame will Kelly & Co. conjure if the Irish do see an Iowa State in a Camping World Bowl?

Lose that one, and the Kelly detractors will turn up the volume.

The bottom line is, though, that this was a good season. What’s that old saying? You can’t win ‘em all.

The gloom-and-doom Domers are advised to savor the USC rout. And appreciate a lot of quality wins against very capable opponents, and some dominant early performances.

Yes, you can question Kelly. We certainly have in this space. But all things considered, it has been a good year. Talking about a coaching change—or even saying ND has not made enough strides this fall—is classic Notre Dame crazy talk.

There will be new issues and challenges nest year. There always are. But the idea that something is wrong if ND isn’t perennially knocking on the national-championship door is foolishness.

Those days are gone—gone with Rockne and Ara and even Lou Holtz. College football is much more competitive these days. ND doesn’t have the same advantages it once did. Many schools have the same advantages. Notre Dame remains an iconic program that ought to be in the hunt for great things at times. It was, until it took a couple of tough November road trips. And it will be again.

How soon? A lot depends on whether Wimbush matures and becomes an unflappable force. The raw materials are there. He needs to improve his mechanics, and his vision.

``Brandon is a competitor,’’ Kelly said. ``He’ll bounce back. He is who he is. He wants to win as bad as anybody. He’ll go back to work and work on his craft. He’s our starting quarterback. He’ll be starting in the bowl game.’’

At the bowl game, against what’s likely to be another quality opponent, we’ll find out if Notre Dame can change the slip-and-slide narrative that has been going on since their disappointing trip to Miami.

If, as expected, the Irish wind up in Florida, what better place to reverse the November trend and end the season on a high note?[/membership]

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