SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In the scope of Notre Dame’s 127-year history, a 6-6 regular season would be forgettable at best and disappointing at worst. Three months ago, when Notre Dame was a top-10 preseason team, six wins would've represented a disaster of a season (and, realistically, it still does).
But the narrow viewpoint taken by those inside the Irish locker room is that getting to six wins would nonetheless be an accomplishment worth celebrating.
To get there, Notre Dame will have to beat the two best opponents on its 2016 schedule. While Virginia Tech is coming off a head-scratching 30-20 home loss to Georgia Tech last weekend, the Hokies have been in and out of the top 25 all year and probably will wind up in Orlando playing for the ACC Championship in early December.
Even if Notre Dame beats Virginia Tech on Saturday in South Bend, it’ll have go into Los Angeles and beat a USC team that, over the last month and a half, has played like one of the five or six best teams in the country. The Trojans’ 26-13 win over then-No. 4 Washington in Seattle was a high point for Clay Helton, Sam Darnold & Co.’s impressive turnaround this fall.
“They definitely want to keep playing,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We've talked about the importance of each game, and certainly these next two weeks being very, very important.
“But, look, we understand more importantly that we want to play the game and how we play the game is more important about really anything else because, for right now, we're playing for next year. And I think we're starting to figure out how to play.”
Notre Dame’s work wouldn’t be done, though, even if it reached a bowl game with a 6-6 record. This program hasn’t had a losing season since 2007’s 3-9 disaster, and Irish players certainly want to avoid the ignominy that would come with breaking that streak.
And too, it would be a payoff for all the work that’s been put in since that embarrassing Duke loss that got defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder fired and set the Irish on this tenuous path to bowl eligibility.
“I think it’s huge to turn around and be the solution to this whole thing,” linebacker and captain James Onwualu said. “It would be very nice to see that some of the work we put in led to something that we could hold on to and have another opportunity to compete.”
More importantly than Notre Dame’s own history would be the recent history of teams having success following a 7-6 season. Teams rarely rebound into playoff/big-time bowl contention a year after finishing with five or fewer wins, but nine teams in the last decade have gone from 7-6 to a top-12 BCS/College Football Playoff ranking in a two-year span (four more finished with six wins and improved to a top-12 finish a year later, too).
Notre Dame’s chances of actually pulling off wins No. 5 and 6, though, are low — S&P+ pegs them at 13 percent. But if the Irish can do it, it could give them some momentum heading into a critical offseason for the future of the program.
“I think it would show that we’re heading in the direction we should be,” Kizer said. “In the beginning of the year, we really weren’t, and it was apparent with our record that we weren’t on the line that we wanted to be on. And since we acknowledged that and put forth the effort and time to change that, I would say that the Duke game might be a time where we really changed our mentality and focused in on it, and had a couple of heart-to-hearts in here to figure out the best way to go about it.
“Our mentality and our program is heading back on the right track of winning. To get to a bowl game would be the best part of this season, and shows we got back on that track of winning and getting ourselves in a position to continue on the winning tradition Notre Dame has always had.”