This season came in with a lot of high expectations because of the way new coaches had started out in the past. Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis both came to South Bend and started off with some pretty good seasons in their respective debuts.
Brian Kelly is different. His new system brings in a completely different way to play and a completely different pace.
And, judging by the first four games, it has been tough for the Fighting Irish to adjust to this change.
With back-to-back heartbreaking losses to rivals Michigan and Michigan State, there's now a completely different outlook on this season.
Yes, I know it's an ugly word, but it's better that Brian Kelly will peak later than have two good seasons and fall off to nothing like Weis and Willingham. If Kelly can do what he did at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, it's going to take a couple of years. He has to get the players that fit his system.
However, this season isn't over yet. The Irish can still be bowl bound if they continue to grow as the season goes on.
With games against Tulsa, Army and Western Michigan, the Irish have three sure wins.
The game against Navy should be a win, but they aren't just a cupcake that Notre Dame will rollover anymore. Those four games, if Notre Dame can win them, would bring the Irish to five wins.
So, the games against Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Utah will be the swing games. Assuming they lose to USC, which isn't for sure if they are playing they're best football by the end of the season, but these will be the three most important games for Notre Dame moving forward.
Next week is Boston College, and if they plan to win, they need to step up their game a whole lot from last week against Stanford. Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford are all better than Boston College, so it won't take a monumental effort to secure a victory.
However, these rivalry games can turn in any direction when both teams step onto the field.
As for Utah and Pittsburgh, they played each other in perhaps one of the most exciting games Week 1. Then-ranked Pittsburgh took Utah into overtime where they fell just short. Pittsburgh's second loss came at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes this week as they lost 31-3.
Again, the Panthers are a team that Notre Dame can definitely defeat if they don't go out and lay an egg.
Utah could be a different story.
They are currently ranked 13th in the AP Poll and are seventh in the nation in scoring offense and eighth in scoring defense. Utah could possibly be just as good as USC at the end of the season.
Utah and USC will definitely be the two toughest games for the Irish, but the bright side is that both of them will be near the end of the season. If Notre Dame keeps improving as the year moves forward, they will be playing their best football by the time they face those two teams.
The good news is, to be 6-6 and bowl eligible, the Irish only need to take down those four teams that should be wins and then win two out of the four that I mentioned as the swing games.
The matchups against Pittsburgh, Boston College, Utah, and USC will define the season for Notre Dame. If they can come away with at least two wins in those four games, then they can still play in a bowl during this rebuilding season.
While it's much easier said than done, those are the games Notre Dame must win if they hope to secure the fans' faith in Brian Kelly though this offseason.
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