The schedule says it is only Week 3 of the college football season and there is still plenty of time for a coach to meld his team into a championship unit.
But at Notre Dame the clock moves faster. The stakes at the beginning of the season are always clear cut. There is no chatter about conference championships because Notre Dame is not part of any conference in football. There is not the goal of making it to the league championship game for the same reason.
The goal that Notre Dame has every year is to compete in the national championship game. Or, more recently, at least make the Final Four playoffs
Having said that, because it is Notre Dame, there is more wiggle room at the end of the season for the Irish to squeeze into a Final Four playoff spot simply because it is Notre Dame. The Irish always play an ambitious national schedule which means they will remain on the contender board with one loss and perhaps even two losses.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
Which brings us to this week's game between the Irish and Michigan State in South Bend. Coach Brian Kelly's team comes into the game with a 1-1 record, courtesy of the wild 50-47 double overtime loss at Texas. Notre Dame bounced back last week with a 39-10 over Nevada.
The problem--and the challenge--is obvious. Michigan State is coming to South Bend totally fresh. The Spartans opened with an easy win over Furman on Sept. 2 They had last week off. They are more than capable of pulling off an upset which would essentially ruin the Irish season.
Here's why. Projecting a team with two losses into the Final Four is a tricky proposition. You have the Power 5 conferences, you have a legitimate contender from the Non-Power 5 conferences in Houston and you have Notre Dame.
After two weeks, the contenders have already started to thin out. The Big 12 is almost dead in the water. Oklahoma has already lost (to Houston) and Texas still has too many unknowns to project any long term success, TCU has a loss and Baylor's non-conference schedule will work against the Bears even if they do run the table in the Big 12.
The SEC has only one team in the Top 15--Alabama. The ACC has added Louisville as a possibility along with Florida State and Clemson, but FSU faces the Cardinals this week and the loser will drop back a notch. Clemson has been sputtering.
The Pac-12 looks like Stanford and Washington and the Big Ten has Ohio State, Michigan as the front runners with Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska all looking to sneak in the side door.
If Notre Dame falls to 1-2, the Irish, who are ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, will no doubt drop out of the Top 25. Getting back to No. 4 will be a monumental climb. Adding to the challenge is that the remainder of the Notre Dame schedule is filled with teams who will not boost ND's credentials.
After Michigan State, the Irish dive into the ACC portion (they are contractually obligated to play five ACC teams each season). ND's next three games are against Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina State. All three teams lost last week.
Notrre Dame plays Stanford on Oct. 15th and a win over the Cardinal will be a boost unless..Stanford comes into that game with its own blemishes. Stanford's next three games are against USC, UCLA and Washington--all of whom are capable of beating the Cardinal.
After Stanford, Notre Dame finishes its schedule with Miami, Army, Navy, Virginia Tech and USC. Again, that is not a stretch of games that will boost the status of ND a great deal.
Kelly is taking the "one game at a time'' stance in watching his young team mature. ""We're still a work in progress,'' said Kelly at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. "We just had our first win. We're not running around here giddy that we've arrived. We still have a lot of work to do.''
Kelly knows what's at stake and he knows the challenge that Michigan State, which did make it to the Final Four last season as the Big Ten champion, presents.
""It's really about executing at a high level that this team needs now,'' said Kelly. ""That's the next box that we've got to check and they're preparing the right way. I like their resolve. They'll fight for four quarters. Now we've got to execute at a higher level on Saturday.''
The danger, of course, is that if they don't, their national championship dreams and even Final Four playoff dreams will basically be over.[/membership]