One of the perils of remaining steadfastly independent, as Notre Dame insists on doing, is the Big Question: What are the Irish playing for when the ultimate goal—the national championship—is off the table.
Of course, there are still lesser rungs of success: A New Year’s Day bowl, the next best bowl, compiling the best won-lost record possible etc. But they aren’t as easily quantifiable as they are for schools that are in conferences.
In addition, when Notre Dame, which takes pride in its national reach, has its wings clipped early, those who follow the Irish—whether they root for or against them—see the season as a failure much more quickly because ND lacks the lesser objectives found in conference play.
And the Irish certainly have had their wings clipped this fall.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
They sit a miserable 2-5—with a bye week to think about it before Miami comes to South Bend on Oct. 29. After that, Navy, Army and Virginia Tech will visit under-renovation Notre Dame Stadium—which, like the team, is a work in progress—before the finale at USC.
Except for Army, any of these are capable of beating the Irish without shocking the college football world. Similarly, ND could run the table without shocking the college football world.
Most likely, the Irish won’t win them all. Or lose them all.
The immediate concern, of course, is to get back on the horse and start playing winning football.
``We’re going through a tough spot, but they’re committed to wanting to get through this together,’’ Kelly said. ``Their attitude is incredible. Their commitment is incredible. I love coaching this group. I can coach them hard and hold them to high standards, and that’s what they want. They want to be held to really high standards, even though they’re going through a tough period. They’re all bought in. I guess that’s the way I would put it.’’
Kelly also is bought in. Which is one of many possible explanations for him getting testy when a Stanford strength coach set him off with a quick ``Bye, bye'' after the Cardinal had taken down ND 17-10 on Saturday night. Whether it was a comment on Kelly's job status, Notre Dame's inability to hold a 10-0 lead or simply an ungracious remark doesn't matter. Kelly wasn't having it.
So. . . while there’s speculation about whether Kelly will be fired, and probes into why ND is so messy, my quick answers are: 1) Kelly isn’t going anywhere this year. And 2) Stuff happens.
The only way I expect Kelly to be gone is if he wants to be gone—and he doesn’t sound or act like someone who wants to be gone.
If the rough ride continues next year, that’s a different story. But for now, this is a guy who guided the Irish to the 2012 national championship game, a guy who had them in the hunt, despite some critical injuries, for a College Football Playoff berth until a last-second loss in their final regular-season game at Stanford last fall.
He knows how to deal himself a hand, and he knows how to play it. That reputation is taking a hit this fall. But see No. 2 above.
A young defense has shown improvement since Kelly fired coordinator Brian VanGorder. Meanwhile, the running game remains underwhelming and quarterback DeShone Kizer struggled in the passing game against Stanford and Hurricane Matthew.
As I said, it’s a work in progress. And that doesn’t play well at Notre Dame, particularly when the team starts in the pre-season top 10.
Best guess: The Irish sneak into bowl eligibility by going 4-2 the rest of the way. And then they hear howls because they land in a better bowl than their record would seem to indicate.
One thing I’ve learned about Notre Dame is that they have enough to right the ship. They’re good at tuning out the external noise, and getting back to why they’re one of the most-watched teams in America.
``We’re OK,’’ left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. ``We understand we’re very capable of getting out of the hole we’re in. It’s just a matter of finishing games. We’re right there. It’s tough to handle right now, but we’re confident we’ll get out of this rut.’’
There may be no conference chase, let alone a College Football Playoff path. But when you strip away all the hype and craziness, from Kelly on down, Notre Dame’s players and coaches like to play football, and they like to win. They may not be very good at it right now, but they will get better quickly.
The way they see it, they don’t have much choice.[/membership]