Ah, that’s better.
Like a sip of refreshing hot apple cider on a crisp fall day, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish went on the road to a team with a brutal offense to defend and thoroughly controlled the game. Nifty playcalls on offense finally started to click, while the defensive line bossed around the Tar Heel offense for most of the afternoon. It wasn’t a clinic or a dominant performance by any stretch, but it was miles ahead of where this team was two weeks ago.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about yesterday, really. In a way that’s telling — wasn’t that the kind of game we had expected from Notre Dame all year? If you had given me the box score from Chapel Hill in August, or even after the Ohio State game, I wouldn’t look twice at it. The Irish finally won both lines of scrimmage, Michael Mayer had a showcase game, and the run game dictated the pace of play behind a mauling offensive line. And, get this, the defense forced a turnover. It felt like the team started to find who they thought they were all along.
This team still has a long way to go of course. The fourth quarter was sloppy on a number of fronts, with mental mistakes from the defense abundant and an endzone turnover making the scoreboard look less pretty than it should have. It was fortunate the team was up big so that these mistakes didn’t swing the game. And there’s no telling how much of the sudden offensive burst was the offense actually improving and how much of it was North Carolina’s latent defense allergy, but it helps to have a successful performance to build on. At the end of the day, the Irish went on the road against the #33 team in the country per the AP poll* and came out with a two score victory. I certainly couldn’t have predicted that after Marshall.
*Can I argue Notre Dame not receiving any votes in the AP poll even after a “get right” game? Not really. Am I really mad that the team they just beat has? Of course!
But whereas bowl eligibility felt like a reach two weeks ago, now there are clear paths to a winning season. The schedule only gets tougher from here on out — a suddenly competent USC looms at season’s end, and an angry pack of Tigers eager to avenge their iconic pandemic loss under the Golden Dome await in November as well. Stanford and Syracuse look moderately better than recent versions, and there’s the #narrative game of Phil Jurkovec and Boston College on Senior Day in South Bend. We’ll know a lot more about this team in two weeks time when the sun sets on Sin City.
Speaking of which, boy do I need a bye week. That was a whole season’s worth of emotion in a month. Never a dull moment in the life of a college football fan.
Elsewhere in our weird little college football corner, hyped-up teams stumbled. Florida lost for a second time in a month. Texas went across state to Lubbock and lost in overtime, surely signifying that this is the year Texas is back if the “loss-that-was-secretly-a-win” to Alabama didn’t indicate that already.
It was a great day for the state of Tennessee against teams from Florida. Tennessee of course headlined the day, beating a Florida team that is usually their foil. So maybe Tennessee is good? I don’t really remember a time when Tennessee football was good, so I’m bracing myself to add them to the list of “fanbases that are insufferable when they’re good” but hopefully I can blissfully hang out up north and ignore any grandiosity from Knoxville. (Lord knows we get enough from Ann Arbor.) Miami, meanwhile got absolutely pantsed by… Middle Tennessee.
Yes, I typed that correctly. Star quarterback and Heisman darkhorse benched, home crowd (all five of them) embarrassed. Take heart, Hurricanes fans — there’s always next year to hype up immeasurably before inevitably losing horribly.
But buried under all that Miami schadenfreude somewhere is a real fear of Mario Cristobal. Not as a potential opponent, mind you, but as a possible future for our dear head coach. Cristobal has been the biggest new thing in college coaching for what feels like forever now, and he’s yet to really deliver much of substance. Winning the Rose Bowl is always noteworthy, but with the talent Cristobal raked in at Oregon, you’d have expected that victory to be a stepping stone to bigger things. Instead, the next highest water mark for Cristobal’s Ducks (the Oregon variety, not the Miami mascot… speaking of which why is Miami’s mascot a duck anyway?) was getting pantsed by… Iowa State. His teams always seem to melt in even moderately tough spots — Utah anyone? — and he never had Oregon all that close to a playoff berth, despite playing in the weakest Power 5 conference in the sport.
So why am I scared of this guy? Because I can’t ignore the gnawing voice in the back of my head that this is what might happen to Marcus Freeman. Sure, the Bob Davie takes were quick and easy after Marshall, but I think Cristobal is a more realistic bad outcome. Cristobal is well known as a dynamite recruiter, as is Freeman. Both played for Hall of Fame coaches at schools that regularly competed for national titles. Cristobal was promoted from within to get the Oregon job; Freeman was an internal hire at Notre Dame. There parallels are there, but Cristobal has a more extensive track record. Cristobal slogged through a tepid tenure at FIU, which admittedly we shouldn’t read much into because it’s FIU, before enrolling at the Nick Saban School for Fired Head Coaches at the University of Alabama and getting his career back on track before landing a job at Oregon on Willie Taggart’s staff. It’d be an exaggeration to say Cristobal has failed upward since then, as he’s had an objectively good run, but his track record doesn’t justify the hype he gets and how coveted he was at Miami. What if this is Freeman’s fate? What if Marcus Freeman recruits well but results never quite show up on the field? What if he becomes the football equivalent of an ice cream cake — always sounds appealing but never quite satisfying? That possibility will keep me up at night this season, more than any potential future Marshall-level performances.
Although, there’s always the Scott Frost outcome. As usual, Nebraska is there to remind us things could always be worse.
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