FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame’s brutal schedule appears easier to handle than when the season started.
That’s what a 4-0 start will do to a slate that had five teams in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 on it. Even if the No. 10 Irish still have three games remaining against Top 25 opponents.
But after dispatching then-No. 18 Michigan 13-6 on Sept. 22 at home a week after upsetting then-No. 10 Michigan State, the Irish believe big things are in store for the rest of the season.
The team is 4-0 and has beaten two top-20 teams. That’s enough for them to know that if they continue to work hard and do the right things, they can be a really, really good football team, coach Brian Kelly said during his teleconference last Sunday.
Notre Dame will still have plenty of good teams to deal with when it resumes play against Miami at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Saturday.
But even that seems easier after some early season stumbles by other teams.
The Irish play host to Stanford on Oct. 13. The Cardinal had risen to No. 8 in the AP Top 25 after upsetting USC 21-14 on Sept. 15, but they will likely slide down the poll today after losing to Washington 17-13 on Thursday night.
Notre Dame’s road games against ranked foes also no longer appear as daunting as when USC was ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll and Oklahoma started the season at No. 4.
The Irish travel to Oklahoma on Oct. 27. The Sooners, who entered the weekend 2-1 and No. 16 in the AP poll, fell in the AP Top 25 after a 24-19 loss to Kansas State on Sept. 22.
Notre Dame closes the regular season Nov. 24 at USC, which entered the weekend 3-1 and No. 13 in the AP poll.
Kelly, who gave his team the weekend off, said he will not let his players get too far ahead of themselves with two thirds of the season left and the possibility of a BCS bowl berth.
We go back to work same routine that we’ve had each and every week, Kelly said of what he will do with his team after beating Michigan. (The players have) got a lot to do in the classroom, a lot of exams coming up. We’ll be really busy. We’ll be focused on that and work right into Miami.
Notre Dame will have to keep its focus to make sure its sixth 4-0 start since 1982 looks more like the teams guided by Lou Holtz than Gerry Faust or Tyrone Willingham.
Holtz led the Irish to an 11-0 record and their last national title in 1988 after a 4-0 start. And his teams in 1993 (11-1) and 1989 (12-1) were in the championship discussion at the end of the season.
But Willingham’s 2002 team, which started 8-0, lost its final two games by a combined score of 72-19, and Faust’s 1982 team lost its final three games and finished 6-4-1.
We’ve always believed that we could be great, linebacker Manti Te’o said after the win over Michigan. Slowly but surely, these little steps we’re taking, it builds our confidence. But I think the strength of this team is we don’t buy into that hype. We don’t buy into all that stuff. We just do whatever it takes to where we’re 4-0 now, and last week we were 3-0, and all we were focusing on was to be 4-0 and now all we’re focusing on is to be 5-0.
We approach every week the same, always trying to get better, always focusing on the next opponent. We don’t worry about opponents down the line. I think that’s where we really have helped nurture that feeling that the sky’s the limit for this team.