Sports are full of hyperbole. A lot of times its overblown. In this case though, it’s not hyperbole to say that the Michigan game on Saturday will set the tone for the Notre Dame season.
Notre Dame enters the 2018 season with a chance to prove that 2016 was indeed a fluke and that the program is finally back into a place where 10 win seasons are the norm, not the exception. The Irish have won 10 games in two of the last three seasons. Sandwiched between those 10-win seasons, however, was the 4-win trainwreck 2016 season.
Does Brian Kelly have Notre Dame back into a position of being a perennial 10-win program that can make legit playoff runs? Or will inconsistency be the ultimate hallmark of the Brian Kelly era? Given we’re in year nine, it’s hard to imagine that 2018 won’t give us a definitive answer to that.
It’s been 25 years since Notre Dame’s won 10 games in back to back seasons. Kind of hard to believe it’s been that long, huh? They have a chance to change that in 2018. To do that, Notre Dame has to win this weekend.
A win this weekend sets Notre Dame up for a 4-0 start to the season with Ball State, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest following in the next three weeks. A loss in the season opener to Michigan and Notre Dame will be staring at a schedule that includes Stanford, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and USC on it with zero margin for error for a playoff run. A loss and Notre Dame would face the prospect of a potential two loss September. In short, a loss just sets this team and potentially this program back at a time when Brian Kelly might just finally have it over the hump.
Logistics aside, a loss would also create some bad optics and feed the narrative of the “same old Notre Dame”. For all of the big wins last year (NC State, USC, Michigan State). The narrative to end the year was that Notre Dame still can’t win big games because of the losses to Miami and Stanford. The program built up a lot of momentum that carried over to the recruiting trail last year. That momentum would come to a halt – at least momentarily – while the “same old Notre Dame” narrative rears its ugly head.
With both teams ranked in the low teens, the winner of this game likely jumps into the top 10 as well. Rankings at this time of the year mean very little – especially with the AP Rankings meaning nothing in terms of determining the playoffs. At the same time, having Notre Dame in the top 10 and in the national discussion early in the season is never a bad thing.
Add in the presence of ESPN College Gameday on campus and the opportunity for Notre Dame is even greater this weekend. This is the marquee game of the weekend and the winner will be the talk of the Gameday crew Saturday night and on Sunday. That kind of notoriety and attention can also carry over to the recruiting trail even if the Irish are nearly done for 2019 already.
We’ll Learn A lot about the Irish Early
We will learn a lot about Notre Dame this weekend win or lose. The biggest question mark for the Irish is quarterback Brandon Wimbush. If the senior signal caller is able to move the ball on the best defense he will face all year, we’ll know pretty quickly that Wimbush has turned the corner. Conversely, if Wimbush struggles against the vaunted Wolverine defense and gets pulled, the Irish will have lingering questions at quarterback that won’t be answered for some time.
Defensively big things are expected from first year defensive coordinator Clark Lea. With most of the starters back from a defense that made huge strides in 2017, it is reasonable to expect the Irish defense to be its strength. If they come out and dominate a Michigan offense featuring a veteran quarterback learning a new offense that is missing its top target we’ll know things are headed in that direction. If Shea Patterson comes out and conjures up memories of Shane Buechele from the opener two years ago, well then we’ll be left wondering what to make of the Notre Dame defense.
With those previously mentioned three “easy” games on the horizon following the Michigan showdown and preceding Stanford’s earlier than normal visit to South Bend, this game will be the clearest indicator of what to expect from the Irish for at least a month. None of Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, or Ball State should give Notre Dame much trouble.
The Stage is Set for Notre Dame Once Again
This is the kind of game Notre Dame simply has to win in year nine under Brian Kelly if they are ever to truly enter the realm of elite teams under this coaching staff. Michigan is a very good team but they are not some juggernaut. This is a team that was 8-5 last year and lost its bowl game to South Carolina. Their new quarterback who everyone points to as the difference maker struggled against any half decent opponent he faced. Against South Alabama, UT Martin, and Vanderbilt; Patterson threw 13 touchdowns to just 1 INT. In his other four games – LSU, Auburn, Alabama, and Cal – he threw all of four touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Notre Dame will have the home crowd in their corner and may even play in front of a sea of green if the “Green Out” Notre Dame is attempting works. Side note, don’t be too cool for school on Saturday and wear blue or white or any other color.
We’ve seen this script in front of Notre Dame before though and it hasn’t always worked out. Every now and then we get a USC 2017 style beat down, but so many times when everything has been set up for Notre Dame to make a statement, they don’t the kind of statement we’re hoping for.
Season Openers Sign of Things to Come Under Brian Kelly
We’ve also seen season openers set the tone for Notre Dame under Brian Kelly. In 2012, 2015, and 2017 Notre Dame beat up on some bad teams and set the tone for the best years of the Kelly Era. The 2011 South Florida disaster and the 2016 loss in Austin to a bad Texas team on the other hand set the tone for what were bad seasons for the Irish. Saturday will be the first time, however, that Kelly has faced a ranked opponent in a season opener so in that regard this is a unique opportunity for him and his program.
A loss on Saturday wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would immediately lower expectations and dampen spirits after last season’s rebound. A win sets up Notre Dame for a collision with Stanford at the end of the month for what will be a showdown of top 10 teams and could be the catalyst for a legit playoff run.
At the same time, should the Irish lose, it could be an indicator that we’re in for another classic Kelly down year following a good season. Remember, following the run to the title game in 2012, Notre Dame lost four games in 2013. A year after his second 10 win season at Notre Dame, the Irish lost eight games the following season. We’ve yet to see Kelly string together two really good seasons back to back.
There’s a lot on the line for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly this weekend and in many ways the outcome could be a sign of what’s to come this year. Will Saturday set in motion the makings of the first back to back seasons of 10 or more wins since the entire roster was born or will it set off another season of the inconsistency that has mired the program during the first eight years of the Kelly era?
We will soon find out.