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Mulvena: ND still hasn’t proven it’s among the college football elite

| Friday, October 5, 2018

The last time I wrote a Notre Dame football column, the Irish were gearing up for their first road game of the year after a close call against Vanderbilt, and catastrophe seemed to loom on the horizon. In that column, I questioned Notre Dame’s ability to execute and reach its potential on defense. I also advocated for an offensive system change that would allow senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to forget the pocket and run free, and I likened its playoff chances to the transcendent cinematic masterpiece “Slumdog Millionaire.”

This morning, I set time aside for my daily procrastination routine and read an ESPN article which gives the Irish (5-0) a 47 percent chance of earning a spot in the playoff, turned on my TV to watch Paul Finebaum predict the Irish to make the playoff on “First Take,” and I wondered whether my Irish football pessimism had gone too far.

I meant this all as a sort of noble mea culpa, but I realize it actually reads more like a sad diary entry.

In any case, I’m thrilled by the opportunity to relay a new wave of pessimism to the community at large this week.

Last week’s contest was an enormously important win for the Irish, and they have now solidified themselves as playoff contenders. But the Irish, whether they earn a playoff berth or not, have yet to prove they can compete with any team in the current top-four.

For every reason to believe the Irish are the real deal, there is another to believe they’d have a hard time in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

For every fancy Ian Book shovel pass to extend the drive, there’s a wide open receiver in the end zone with butter fingers. For every Jerry Tillery sack, there’s a 30-yard Ball State reception.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Ian Book drops back and looks to throw during Notre Dame’s 38-17 win over Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that things are trending significantly upward for the Irish, and most everyone likes to point to the change at quarterback to explain such a trend, and rightfully so. Since Book, a junior, has stepped in at the offensive helm, the unit has clicked on a number of levels. Wide receiver play has improved significantly (senior Miles Boykin finally recorded the breakout game we all knew could come), the offensive line has looked impenetrable and the running backs have found a groove.

But there is no reason to believe that the Irish could come within even three touchdowns of Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia or Clemson in any given game. Book has given the Irish faithful a lot to be excited about heading forward, but, and here’s where the pessimism gets obvious — it’s only been two games. Two games. One game against a team with a defense you could probably find at St. Joseph’s High School any Friday night in South Bend and at one of the smallest stadiums in FBS football. Another against a Stanford team, which is a national force, but has a running back who is admittedly a shell of what he was last year and a defense outside of the top-50 in passing yards allowed and total defense.

Plus, let’s remind ourselves that five games is a laughably small sample size in general. It’s not enough for the S&P+ to come out with unit-specific rankings. It’s not enough for FiveThirtyEight to release its annual prediction. And if you think five weeks is enough to measure a team’s competency and that the Irish have proved they can compete with top-four programs, don’t compare the Irish to Alabama so far this season. You won’t like what you’ll see. This year, the Crimson Tide’s (5-0, 2-0 SEC) defense is predictably incredible under Nick Saban. But the offense is just as deadly, which is a scary world to live in for any college team vying for a spot in the Playoff. Alabama’s offensive efficiency, which is expressed on a scale of 0-100, is 97.4, the highest in the nation. Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency? Sixty-seven. You could call me unfair for making such a comparison. One, because Alabama is really other-worldly in the scope of college football history, and two, because the Irish have made a change on offense which seems to have given birth to a whole new team. Well, Georgia and Clemson both place in the top three in defensive efficiency, along with Alabama. How about the Irish defense, the reliable crutch for this playoff contender? The Irish place 19th. These stats certainly aren’t everything, and maybe I’ll write another column in two weeks trying to spin zone my pessimism once again. But I have a hard time believing Georgia and Clemson couldn’t have done what the Irish did against Wake Forest and Stanford.

In light of all this, this week’s game against Virginia Tech will be extremely revealing. For the Irish, one could say that competitive road games are like romantic comedies in the movie theater — they usually end with a lot of crying and people brooding over how they haven’t found what they’re looking for. Notre Dame has a knack for allowing other teams to make their case for the playoff in crunch time. Last year, the Hurricanes did it in Miami. Two years before that, Stanford did it at home. The list goes on. And this week, the Irish will be faced with a Virginia Tech team that many thought would surprise before a fluke upset to Old Dominion. The Hokies (3-1, 2-0 ACC) have a mean defense, an explosively quick offense and a fan base that won’t let Irish fans occupy half the stadium like they did in Wake Forest. Lane Stadium is going to be loud, and Virginia Tech will be looking to dole out punishment after an embarrassing upset two weeks ago. The Irish will have to prove that their road game demons are in the past and that early season blunders were just that — blunders. If the Irish can come out and not only win, but win like a top-four team would, then I’ll eat my hat and begin to talk about how they may matchup against who is truly the nation’s best. But for now, let’s wait and see if the Irish travel to Blacksburg, Virginia, with that top-four killer instinct.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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