Throughout this season, I’ve been writing recaps and giving grades for each Notre Dame game. I’m not going to do that this week. There’s no point. With Miami throttling the Irish 41-8, every grade would be an A for the Hurricanes and an F for the Irish. The more important thing to discuss right now for the program and the fan base is; where do we go from here? Heading into the Miami game it looked as though the Irish were truly national title contenders. Notre Dame had won three games against currently ranked opponents all by at least 20 points. But less than an hour into a warm Miami night the Irish’s national title hopes were gone. Josh Adams Hesiman hopes were gone. All of the goodwill that had been built up throughout the season was gone. The game was eerily reminiscent to the last time Notre Dame played in that stadium, a 42-14 shellacking at the hands of Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. So, where do we go from here? Is there any hope that Notre Dame can return to national prominence in the near future? Did the supposed reboot of the program work, or have we been fooled again? There are two paths the Irish can go down and I will lay out each of them.
Path 1: Fold
One of the biggest complaints about recent Notre Dame teams has been their inability to perform at the end of the season. Looking back at 2013, 2014, and 2015 it seems to be a valid complaint. Given Notre Dame’s recent history against Navy, anything less than a full effort could certainly result in a loss to the Midshipmen. Then, a game against Stanford in what has always been a physical and tightly contested rivalry. If the Irish give up because their playoff hopes are gone, they could fall to 8-4. Even a 9-3 finish would be greatly disappointing following the 8-1 start to the season. Either way, anything less than 10-2 would result in a mediocre bowl game for a program that looked primed for a playoff appearance.
A poor finish to the season doesn’t just look bad, either. Currently, Notre Dame has the 7th ranked recruiting class according to 247 Sports. If the Irish were to finish at 9-4 or 8-5 (including bowl game), there could definitely be a negative impact in recruiting. While the Irish were able to salvage their class after a 4-8 season last year, I don’t believe this class would be as forgiving. Two mediocre seasons in a row can deal a death blow in the recruiting world.
Path 2: Rise Up
No matter what is written about the Miami game, this Notre Dame team has undoubtedly played some great football this season. The same guys who beat Michigan State 38-18, USC 49-14 and NC State 35-14 are still in that locker room. While their playoff hopes are long gone, this team needs to continue to play for the pride of this program. The Irish need to realize they have the chance to do something no Notre Dame team has done since the 1993 season; win a major bowl game. Since the win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1994 the Irish have been outmatched in every major bowl game they’ve played in.
The opportunity is right there for Notre Dame. All of the anger and frustration from last week’s game should lead to a blowout win over Navy on senior day. I have the utmost respect for the Naval Academy, but this year’s team is not up to that program’s usual standard. Then, the Irish will have a chance to exorcise some demons against Stanford. Yes, the Cardinal picked up a major win over Washington last week, but again this Stanford team is not up to that program’s usual standard. Should the Irish win those two games they will be nearly assured of a “New Year’s Six” Bowl appearance.
Right now, the perception is that Notre Dame was highly overrated. For the time being, that is probably justified. However, if the Irish finish 11-2 with a New Year’s Six win and a top 10 finish, that Miami game will be firmly in the rearview mirror. An 11-2 finish and New Year’s Six win would give the Irish massive recruiting momentum and assure a top 10 class. It would also set the table for a legitimate run at the playoff next season.
Which path will the Irish go down? Will they lack focus and fade down the stretch? Or will they play with a determined attitude and bring a sense of pride back to this program? Honestly, I’m not sure, but within the first few minutes of the Navy game we’ll know the answer. You may notice I didn’t call out any coaches or players in this blog. The reason? This isn’t about any individuals. This is about playing for the pride of a program and bringing it back to the place it belongs.