As we all savored a preseason top-10 ranking and the hopes of a possible playoff run, a postseason trip to the Citrus Bowl or the Russell Athletic Bowl never entered any destination consideration for Notre Dame or its faithful followers.
But as we reach the halfway post Saturday to this strange season — and with the toughest stretch of the Irish schedule still looming — Notre Dame players and coaches find themselves in a full scramble to even reach a second-tier December bowl as this talented team remarkably and unexpectedly still tries to define and reinvent itself well into October.
Starting with the trip to North Carolina State, then on to a visit next Saturday from No. 15 Stanford, followed by a matchup later this month versus resurgent and No. 10 Miami, and finally finishing a difficult regular-season slate against No. 25 Virginia Tech and at USC, nothing is going to come easily for the Irish the rest of the way.
In fact, based on the latest Sagarin Rankings and real-time calculations from footballstudyhall.com, Notre Dame (2-3) is only expected to beat Navy and Army during the rest of the regular season. It projects as an underdog in the five remaining games against its Power 5 Conference opponents, while it still needs four wins overall to secure bowl eligibility. The Wolfpack is listed today as a three-point favorite over the Irish.
"A lot to play for," assessed Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, in a grand understatement.
This bowl-eligibility discussion is inexplicable for an Irish team filled with elite talent, top-notch facilities, and a high-priced coaching staff.
Under Kelly, recruiting is as strong and steady as it has been since the Lou Holtz era, the Irish lineup is loaded with future NFL players, and once Texas and Michigan State stumbled after beating Notre Dame, the first half of the Irish schedule has proven to be much less hazardous than expected; all of which makes it difficult to digest the persistent rhetoric from Kelly that lists short- and slow-term incremental improvements as his remaining goals to the rest of this season.
"A lot in front of us, a lot of challenges," Kelly said this week in an explanation more fitting for a rookie coach than a veteran skipper coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance. "But more importantly, a group that I feel is really excited about the direction we're going, especially on defense. We hope to build on that."
Not surprisingly, a passionate Irish fanbase isn't overly excited about Notre Dame needing to take baby steps during the second half of this season just to become bowl-eligible.
Yet, where this program is and given where it needs to be, making a postseason game this year — no matter when or where — is more important than any of the previous six bowl runs Notre Dame has made under Kelly, not only for the sake of the extra game but also because of the 15 practices that come with it.
"It's a long-term approach," explained Kelly, who rotates 18 redshirt and true freshmen into his lineup, "in the sense that we are getting a lot of young players some valuable experience."
All of which suggests how vital a bowl appearance will be to affording this team a chance to better develop its youthful players, stabilize coaching turnover and turbulence, and continue to install a new defensive strategy as Kelly further distances himself from recently deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
"There is a bigger trust and understanding in knowing that we're going to be in pretty good shape defensively," Kelly said. And let's hope so.
Add to the chronic defensive deficiencies this season the uncertainty as to whether star quarterback DeShone Kizer will return in 2017, and finding a way to secure six wins and bowl eligibility this season becomes imperative to set the tone for next season.
"Let's put these guys in a position to succeed this year, utilizing a lot of young players, gaining experience as we go, and being smart about utilizing our personnel," Kelly said of his objectives the rest of this year. "In other words, putting them in places to succeed."
And the quickest way to succeed, Coach Kelly?
Find six wins this regular season, 15 more practices, and a bowl game — and that means any bowl game — be it named after a fruit, a vegetable, an apparel line, or anything else.
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.