Going into Saturday night’s game against Michigan State, it was easy to understand why some were skeptical of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were coming off of a 4-8 season and their two wins to open the 2017 campaign were against teams that were struggling in Temple and Boston College. Plus, the one-point loss to Georgia looked oh-so-familiar to Irish fans that witnessed a number of one-possession losses in 2016.
But on Saturday night, many perceptions on Notre Dame had to have changed. It is true that Michigan State is trying to rebound from its own miserable season, but the way that the Irish went to Spartan Stadium and dominated from the opening kick on the way to a 38-18 victory had to open eyes around the country.
In reality, positive feelings about the Irish should have begun blossoming even before the kickoff in East Lansing. By the time FOX began the broadcast, the Georgia Bulldogs were already in firm control of their game against aMississippi State team ranked in the top 20 after dismantling LSU last week. That performance by Georgia, coupled with Notre Dame’s impressive display, has to give even the most cynical Irish fans reason for hope.
The hope for the remainder of the season is not just the result of Saturday night’s outcomes. In Athlon Sports' preseason Notre Dame game-by-game predictions, four of the five analysts predicted an ND victory over Michigan State and had the Irish sitting at 3-1 at this point in the season. However, the supposedly difficult schedule that remains may not be quite as daunting as many feared entering the season.
North Carolina is 1-3 with their only win coming against Old Dominion. Miami's schedule has been adjusted due to Hurricane Irma, and the Hurricanes had their issues in victories over FCS opponent Bethune-Cookman and Toledo from the MAC. Though Stanford ran away from UCLA in the second half of Saturday’s game, the Cardinal are just 2-2 and have been inconsistent on offense. Even USC, 4-0 and ranked in the top five nationally, has yet to truly flex its muscles.
This is not to say that Notre Dame’s schedule the rest of the way is easy. Those teams will provide considerable challenges as will NC State, an improved Wake Forest, and, of course, Navy. Plus, there are things the Irish have to clean up. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the passing game needs to improve, the right side of the offensive line has to get better, and the defense has yet to be tested by a quarterback that can throw the ball consistently.
Despite those potential issues, the Irish have answered a number of questions in the early part of the 2017 season. The team is more fundamentally sound and has made fewer mistakes on both sides of the ball. The new assistant coaches seem to be blending well and Brian Kelly is on much more solid ground.
Notre Dame will probably not be contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff. But the Irish are a good team, one that should be playing for a New Year’s Six bowl bid late in the year.
What a difference a few hours make in the world of college football.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.