At 5-1, Notre Dame is in the hunt again. Whether that means the Irish are College Football Playoff contenders or are really competing for a New Year's Six berth is irrelevant. For the fourth time in five years, it looks like Notre Dame will be playing meaningful games in November.
So far, the Irish have won the games in which they've been favored and lost their only game as an underdog. The good news is that while the Michigan game appears to be a toss-up, Notre Dame should be heavy favorites in all of their November contests.
Here's a look back and a look forward concerning Notre Dame this fall.
Offensive MVP: QB Ian Book
He hasn't been perfect, but the senior from El Dorado Hills, California has been the most important player on the Notre Dame offense. Book's completion percentage is down a bit from last year, and he has noticeably missed his target on occasion, but he also has a higher quarterback rating due to a 14:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's also rushed for three scores, none bigger than the eight-yard scamper to put the Irish up 30-20 late in the fourth quarter of their win over USC.
Defensive MVP: LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
The most impressive aspect of the Irish defense is that contributions have come from everywhere. But Owusu-Koramoah has been a consistent performer since the start of the season. He's second on the team in tackles (37) and third in tackles for a loss (5.5). Owusu-Koramoah has been in the middle of a lot of impactful plays and should improve as he gets more reps this season.
Best Moment of the First Half: Jamir Jones Sack and Forced Fumble vs. Virginia
Notre Dame, coming off a loss to Georgia, found itself down to Virginia 17-14 early in the third quarter. The Cavaliers were looking to score again, possessing the ball at the Notre Dame 38, when Jones sacked UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins, causing a fumble that Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa almost brought back to the house, getting tackled at the seven-yard line. Tony Jones Jr. scored two plays later, and the Irish pulled away for an important victory.
Best Newcomer: S Kyle Hamilton
Hamilton was the highest-rated player in the Class of 2019, and he has not disappointed. The safety from Atlanta has picked off two passes, taking one back for a score, and is sixth on the team with 21 tackles. As the fifth defensive back, Hamilton is on the field at the most meaningful moments.
Biggest Surprise: K Jonathan Doerer
Coming into the year, special teams — and placekicking in particular — was a huge question mark for the Irish. Departing kicker Justin Yoon was Notre Dame's all-time leading scorer, and Doerer was not impressive as a kickoff specialist last year and missed one of his six extra-point attempts. But the new Irish kicker has been as valuable as any member of the team this fall and received the game ball for his work against USC, in which he made field goals from 45, 52 and 43 yards.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. The offensive line
The O-line played its best game of the year against USC and needs to continue progressing over the second half of the season. Tony Jones Jr. has proved that he can be a lead back, and the depth provided by Jahmir Smith and Jafar Armstrong should continue to give Notre Dame a capable running game, assuming the line does its job. Also, giving Ian Book time to throw will be very important because that's the only way that the Irish can...
2. Develop more of a downfield passing attack
First off, Book does have to be a little more precise on the timing patterns as well. But opening things up with big plays would help. To make this happen, Notre Dame will have to find a big-play threat. Whether that comes from a big-bodied player like Miles Boykin (Javon McKinley perhaps) or a burner like Will Fuller V (hello Braden Lenzy?), gaining bigger chunks in the passing game would be very nice.
3. What new adjustments will Clark Lea make?
The Irish defensive coordinator has done a brilliant job of analyzing game situations and changing up his defense to combat tendencies of opposing offenses. For example, the Irish came out with reckless abandon in the second half of the Virginia game, while they were far more conservative against USC. Both strategies resulted in victories, and it will be fun to watch what Lea cooks up over the second half of the season.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 26 at Michigan
Disregard the rhetoric about Jim Harbaugh and Michigan for a moment. This is a difficult matchup for the Irish. The Michigan defense is tough against the run and defends the short passing game very well. The way to beat the Wolverine D is with deep shots, and Notre Dame may not have that capability. Offensively, Michigan is extremely talented and can make a lot of plays, but tend to shoot themselves in the foot on too many occasions. If Michigan puts together a clean offensive performance, especially with the game being played in the Big House, the Irish will have to play their absolute best to come out with a win.
2. Nov. 9 at Duke
After the Michigan game, the other five opponents are very similar. Duke gets the narrow edge in the two-spot despite the Devils getting blown out at Virginia this past week. The game is in Durham, a place that Notre Dame hasn't visited since 1961. David Cutcliffe is a sensational coach and will have two weeks to prepare for the Irish. Duke quarterback Quentin Harris has struggled versus top-shelf opponents, but I still think Duke is the next biggest challenge.
3. Nov. 2 vs. Virginia Tech
Despite looking unimpressive at times, the Hokies are now 5-2 and trending in the right direction. Like Duke, they also have an open date before coming to South Bend, giving head coach Justin Fuente and his staff more time to prepare. That time off should also benefit quarterback Hendon Hooker, who left Saturday's game against North Carolina with a leg injury.
4. Nov. 30 at Stanford
The Cardinal are a mess right now. Their offensive line is extremely young due to injuries, quarterback K.J. Costello has been out with a thumb injury, and the defense ranks 105th against the pass. But it's a long time until the end of November, and the Irish haven't won at Stanford since 2007.
5. Nov. 23 vs. Boston College
With quarterback Anthony Brown out with a lower leg injury, Boston College cannot throw the ball. But the Eagles certainly can run. AJ Dillon had 223 rushing yards and David Bailey added 181 in this past Saturday's win over NC State. The Eagle defense looked much better against the Pack, but they still rank last in the ACC — and 116th nationally — in yards allowed per game.
6. Nov. 16 vs. Navy
The 5-1 Midshipmen have had a huge bounce-back year coming off last season's 3-10 finish. Ken Niumatalolo's team beat Tulsa and USF in their last two games by a combined score of 80-20. Navy will test Notre Dame in many ways, but defensive coordinator Clark Lea has seen this offense before, and Notre Dame's talent on offense should be too much in this game at Notre Dame Stadium.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.