But that's only true if you're a between-the-lines combatant. None of us are (as Kelly points out often), so we're allowed to bother with such big picture issues as, "How did we get here?"
The Irish were actually faced with seven relevant tests heading into Saturday's eighth and most relevant. Stanford will be the best team Notre Dame faces this year, regardless of bowl foe, and a rightful measuring stick for the Notre Dame program in Game 25 of the Kelly era.
The seven tests encountered to date have broken down as such:
Test #1 – The home openerFive turnovers, two weather delays, myriad Irish penalties including four personal fouls on the defense, two quarterbacks, two punt returners, at least four dropped passes with two others catch-able by the offenders, repeated comical special teams gaffes, and a full-field fumble touchdown charged against a runner who proved to be Notre Dame's second-best player this season. Also, Kelly was really mad…
Was it summer camp or training camp that preceded the season in South Bend?
South Florida, proven mediocre since, won 23-20 on a surreal afternoon/evening, the quarterback that Kelly "wanted to coach" lasted 30 minutes, and Notre Dame – highly touted by many including this publication entering the season, took an epic face plant in its season opener.
Test #1 Grade: What's lower than "Fail"?
Test #2 – Bounce Back Opportunity vs. a Bitter RivalThrowback uniforms, the largest crowd in college football history, a rapt television audience, recruiting prowess, revenge for 2010…and '09, at least for the "Weis Guys" – all at stake in the rocking Big House.
For 43 game minutes, Notre Dame appeared to be the best 0-1 team in planetary history; for the final 17 it looked all the world like the disorganized remnants of Irish teams that bumbled around the field during the Davingham and Weaust eras…
Notre Dame's national standing took a hit with an inexplicable 35-31 defeat. But still we believed that two wins, not two losses, should have highlighted September's opening weeks.
Test #2 Grade: Fail…I'm just not sure how
Test #3 – Avoiding CalamityMichigan State was the best team Notre Dame faced since Stanford rolled into town to conclude September 2010. Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and new star George Atkinson rose to the occasion, handling the now 9-2 Spartans in impressive, decisive fashion.
It was a game Notre Dame could not lose – 0-3 could not be tolerated in South Bend (it never has, it never will be). Reminiscent of November 2010 when Kelly first made Irish fans believe, the Irish never considered defeat, humbling future Big 10 Champion (they won one of the new divisions that make no sense), 31-13.
Test #3 Grade: Pass, with flying colors
Test #4 – Heads Above WaterTest four was a three-game grouping of semi-dangerous foes or situations: at Pittsburgh, at Purdue in prime time; vs. Air Force and the vexing triple-option. Notre Dame could afford no slips, not at 1-2 with USC waiting one month down the line.
Getting to 4-2 heading into a welcomed bye week was the only option and the Irish accomplished the fan-fueled mission, digging deep to beat Pittsburgh 15-2; destroying a Purdue team that has since improved, 38-10, and putting up a shocking 59 points on Air Force (so much for my "upset special" from the summer).
From 0-2, to 1-2, to 4-2…pride and hope returned to South Bend and Irish message boards nationwide. With good reason: Notre Dame had stopped turning the ball over, stopped getting in its own way, and Kelly, with help from O-Line coach Ed Warinner, had done the impossible – revived the running game at Notre Dame with a two-back attack the envy of most across the country.
Test #4 Grade: Pass
Test #5 – Retribution…deniedFor eight straight seasons, USC imposed its will on a wilting Notre Dame program. Finally, thanks to Kelly, Michael Floyd, Robert Hughes, and an inspired defensive effort, the Irish turned the tables in November 2010, taking down Troy for what appeared to be the opening game in a new series streak.
Notre Dame pulled out all the stops for this mid-October classic, ending a 21-year hiatus without a home game under the lights, piping in music to rile a formerly dormant crowd, and donning the shiniest gold helmets known to mankind. And of course, the expected Coup de grâce of the Trojans dynasty: 2,000 potential future Irish football players in attendance (or so it seemed).
USC 31 Notre Dame 17 and it felt worse.
Test #5 Grade – Fail with a dose of reality rubbed in for good measure
Test #6 – A Twitter-iffic Response16 current Notre Dame players started football games for Charlie Weis. 40 current Notre Dame football players started football games for Brian Kelly.
Yep, they're his players after all.
Notre Dame responded from an unnecessary and wholly-public falling out of sorts with a 42-14 beat down of recent rival Navy. Kelly's oft-referenced words, re-tweeted (first time I ever used that in a column) regarding the roster created a chasm only winning could close. As is his career custom, Kelly's team responded on the field, moving to 5-3 on the season and keeping hope alive for a late-year revival not seen in South Bend since – well, his first season.
Test #6 Grade: Pass...of an unnecessary test.
Test #7 – Avoiding Calamity, Part IIA three-game set of ACC foes: at Wake Forest, vs. Maryland and against rival Boston College with Senior Day stories intermixed.
The Irish were tested twice, prevailed three times, and set up Saturday's match of national relevance with BCS #4 Stanford. It was the second trio of contests the Irish could not afford to lose, but gained little by winning. Mission Accomplished, Part II. A means to an end, stumbling blocks avoided, etc., etc.
Test #7 Grade: Pass
Great Eight – The Toughest Test AwaitsNotre Dame's journey to date proved the Irish had a program could beat the also-rans with regularity. They proved they could rise up at home and handle a solid national foe with the season hanging in the balance.
They likewise proved, unfortunately, but without a shadow of doubt, that they weren't yet ready for prime time, so to speak…
The latter label can be shed Saturday around 11:30 South Bend time. Or Stanford, future No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, and the physical team to which Kelly aspired to be last September will put Notre Dame back in its 18-year dwelling place.
So yes…there's a lot at stake for Notre Dame Saturday in Palo Alto.
But for the first time this season – the final grade doesn't have to be pass/fail. Partial credit can be awarded if Notre Dame in no way resembles the team that lost to USC in October or to Stanford last September.
Heads can be held high if a team that has won 22 of its last 24 games – with losses only to powerful Oregon intermixed – is taken to the wire by the admittedly short-handed, injured and ailing Irish.
A down-to-the-wire loss would make a bit of a statement. Some could even consider it success – a passing grade.
But a win? Well that would speak for itself.