Every dog has its day, I suppose.
In this case, the dog in question is the Sun Belt conference. Whereas a decade ago the conference was an afterthought, clearly at the absolute bottom of the conference hierarchy, today it is arguably the leader of the Group of Five, the strongest non-power conference in the country. And the conference likely just had its best day in its history
Two Sun Belt teams knocked off top ten teams on the road. Georgia Southern got Scott Frost fired. All in all, pretty good day for conference legitimacy.
The chaos didn’t stop there, or it wouldn’t be a college football Saturday. Alabama struggled with Texas on the road, its legendary offense held to a scant twenty points and needing a last-second field goal to finish off the Longhorns on a day when Texas lost their starting quarterback in the first quarter. BYU waged an overtime war with Baylor, coming out ahead for yet another top ten loss. Florida lost to Kentucky, yet again, after almost forty years of things going the other way.
I didn’t get to witness most of this live, though, due to attending my first Notre Dame game as a graduate. After five amazing years of spending fall Saturdays in a college band, I finally get some degree of agency over how I decide to follow the sport. Sometimes, that means chilling with friends, a beverage in one hand and a TV remote in the other; but others, the lure of beautiful fall afternoons, marching bands, grilled steaks, and the company of fans as passionate and as loony as you are is too much to resist. And despite the outcome Saturday, I really enjoyed my newfound freedom.
There are always tradeoffs, of course. The biggest is not being able to watch five or so games simultaneously. There’s also the sweat, the crowds, the omnipresent risk of skin cancer, the uncomfortable seating, the long lines for concessions — attending college football games can be a big ask when the alternative is to crash on your couch with all the games at your fingertips. But being able to be on the ground in a college football environment remains a truly special experience. There’s nothing like a college football crowd, and being a part of one is something to be treasured. No matter how attractive the TV can be, I’ll believe college football, especially at a place like Notre Dame, is always best appreciated at a college.
It just would’ve really helped if Notre Dame looked anything close to a top ten team.
We may have a full-on five-alarm offensive fire in South Bend.
For the second game in a row, the offense putzed around for the majority of the game, only showing a couple flashes of creativity and competence. For the second game in a row, the offense left the defense out to dry, putting them in a position to close out a close game in the fourth despite having been on the field seemingly all day. For the second game in a row, that proved too tall a task. After all, to win you need to score points, and the Irish didn’t score enough.
Against Ohio State this kind of performance can be written off as a ticked-off opponent with a new defensive coordinator and a stacked roster of talent. Against Marshall though?
It looks like Tommy Rees is trying to call an offense from somewhere in his imagination. Marshall, Marshall read the Irish offense like a book. Nearly everything the Irish did well on offense involved either a) Tyler Buchner running b) Chris Tyree or c) Michael Mayer. Sure, there was the odd completion to Lorenzo Styles, but that was well and truly it. Rather than lean into his personnel strengths, which has more or less been Rees’ hallmark these last few years, he seems to want to will competence into parts of the offense that just don’t have it. Not yet anyway.
In many ways yesterday played like a rerun of last year’s Toledo game, which, due to it being a win, was mercifully forgotten by the end of the season. But there was the same offensive ineptitude, the same defensive buckling at the worst possible moments, the same frantic last-second drive to same some face, even the same referee blocking for the visitors. Except, when last year the Irish had multi-season starter Jack Coan and multi-decade head coach Brian Kelly (who, regrettably, I must momentarily praise), this year they had second-game starter Tyler Buchner and second-game head coach Marcus Freeman. Except, Marshall was riding better coaching and a host of transfer prospects eager to prove themselves. It didn’t end well for the home team.
Part of what makes this game particularly tough to swallow is how united seemingly everyone in the Notre Dame fanbase is behind Marcus Freeman. Back last winter, when Notre Dame football was basically broken up with over text by its longest-tenured head coach, every ounce of good feeling and momentum the program had built up over the previous five years vanished in a flash. In its place was a pile of uncertainty. What was this new order, where the coach of the sport’s most storied program could be sniped in the middle of a recruiting visit? Where would the program go from here? Where could the program go from here?
And in comes a man with a million dollar smile. Freeman was the loyal guy when he didn’t have to be. He had been at Notre Dame all of eleven months, but chose to tie his professional future to the biggest job in college sports. Young, energetic, a recruiting ace, the antithesis of the old head coach. Genuine, thoughtful, and dedicated to his players in a way most football coaches just aren’t. Maybe, just maybe, he was the right guy at the right time with the right skillset for Notre Dame to lead the program higher than Kelly ever could. No coach has checked all the boxes as thoroughly during an offseason. Sure, there was always an acknowledgement there would be growing pains. Freeman would have to learn on the job. The hire was a medium- and long-term play. It’s just… the short term wasn’t supposed to include a home loss to Marshall.
If you wanted to spin this loss positively, you could make the case Notre Dame was due for a very stupid and ugly loss, which we haven’t truly had in a few years. But these losses are easier to swallow from established staffs and experienced coaches with big sample sizes of games to get the signal lost in. All the data points we have on Marcus Freeman right now are losses. At some point, Freeman simply has to win some football games.
It’s hard to tag a head coach with a “must win” game in his third week, but if Notre Dame doesn’t beat Cal next week, things are gonna get uggggly. The accusations will start coming at a leopard’s pace — rushed hire. Too inexperienced. Only hired because the players wanted him. I won’t be able to argue with them too strongly. And, no matter how much I want things to work out with Marcus Freeman, I won’t be able to keep making excuses.
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