The mixed bag that was the Charlie Weis era ended prematurely, not only because the team's defense didn't match its offense, or because its running game couldn't compliment a strong aerial attack, but because the team broke down as the Autumn leaves fell.
Weis' Irish finished a combined 1-8 in nine November contests over his final two seasons in South Bend. His successor has righted the ship.
Kelly's late-season golden touch began with a resounding upset win over No. 15 Utah to kickoff November 2010. The most recent, and doubtless most gratifying game from the 11-game final month lot is the most recent, a 22-13 Notre Dame triumph over their tormentors from Troy last Thanksgiving weekend.
Eleven November games played, 10 victories. A loss to Andrew Luck-led Stanford to conclude the 2011 slate the only blemish.
For the present-day Irish to reach a BCS Bowl, a third undefeated final month in four seasons is mandatory.
The Irish stand 6-2 and ranked No. 25 in the BCS Standings. They need to reach No. 14 overall at season's end to be considered.
Getting there is the problem, and it's two-fold.
Out of Their ControlAhead of the Irish in the rankings are eight undefeated teams. From that group, half are immaterial to Irish concerns as a one-loss team from Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State will retain a BCS bid regardless, assuming each prevails in its conference championship game or said contest is the site of their lone defeat.
Another, the 7-0 Miami Hurricanes, aren't part of the equation, removing themselves from bowl consideration due to self-imposed sanctions last season. (It's also likely that the crew from Coral Gables has a reckoning awaiting them this weekend at the hands of one Jameis Winston and Florida State. May God have mercy on their souls, because the Seminoles won't.)
That leaves the juggernaut Baylor Bears, a modern scoring machine that unwittingly ruined Notre Dame's championship hopes last fall when it eviscerated then-undefeated Kansas State in late November, thus opening the door for one-loss freight train Alabama to re-enter the picture. (Best laid plans...)
Untested to date, Baylor's 2013 season begins this month with games against No. 10 Oklahoma, No. 15 Texas Tech, at No. 18 Oklahoma State, at TCU, and against Texas. If the Bears survive that gauntlet, well welcome to the big boys table, Baylor, you've more than earned it. (And two-loss Oklahoma would then likely fall behind two-loss Notre Dame despite a September 28 win in South Bend.)
Of minor concern are a pair of mid-major undefeated squads, No. 16 Fresno State and No. 17 Northern Illinois. Neither plays a schedule commensurate with a BCS Bid. Both (or one, to be more accurate) must finish undefeated to get in. Both will be favored through season's end, but both have potential pitfalls with which to deal, as Fresno State plays two road games in its last three: live underdogs Wyoming and San Jose State await -- but that road isn't as hard as is the Huskies'.
Northern Illinois hosts a quality Ball State team (8-1) and one week later travels to Toledo, a battle-tested team that faced Florida, Missouri, Ball State, and Navy this season, beating the Midshipmen and putting scares into both the Tigers and Cardinals.
At No. 14, two-loss Notre Dame would be selected over a higher-ranked Bulldogs or Huskies squad. But if both finish undefeated, they might be tough for Notre Dame to leapfrog to that No. 14 slot in the final BCS Poll.
In Their Control…Relatively SpeakingKelly was asked Sunday about his six-season run of November success, one that includes his three-season tenure at Cincinnati (10-1 with a loss to then-No. 6 West Virginia in 2007 the only defeat).
"I just think within our program, we really focus on year-round conditioning, nutrition. We make it such that it's not a grind, that it's not a sprint, but a marathon," he said.
"October is for pretenders and November is for contenders. We try to ingrain that within our players', coaches' minds that this is now the time to kick it into gear 'cause this is where you get the opportunity to play for championships."
If Notre Dame wins out, they'll likely play for a Fiesta or Sugar or Orange Bowl championship. Winning out, however, will prove to be the more difficult of the two pending tasks.
November 2 vs. NavyLikely too one-dimensional -- and not wholly-dominant in that dimension at present -- the Midshipmen will present more of a 60-minute problem than did their triple-option predecessors Air Force last Saturday. Like the Falcons, Navy struggles defensively, 89th in rush defense and 90th in pass efficiency defense.
More troubling for the Mid's, a 118th (of 123 teams) ranking in 3rd-Down defense.
If Tommy Rees remains upright for three quarters, Navy stands very little chance of upsetting the Irish and a defense that's locked in vs. the triple-option thanks to back-to-back weeks of preparation.
November 9 at PittsburghThe last five games in this series have played to an aggregate total of 122-118 with seven overtimes. The 4-3 Panthers have been anything but impressive in head coach Paul Chryst's second season, allowing 55 points to Duke (in a win), scoring just nine vs. Virginia Tech (in a loss), and losing to the aforementioned Naval Academy last Saturdya, 24-21, a game in which Pittsburgh entered as a four-point road favorite.
The Panthers travel to Georgia Tech (as underdogs of 9.5 points) this week before hosting Notre Dame.
Inside the Odds: The November 9 game represents Pittsburgh's bowl game for 2013. Their season. Their Super Bowl. They'll bring a rushing attack, a nose guard in Aaron Donald that Notre Dame rarely blocked last season in a three-overtime thriller, and just enough confidence and determination to make it close. I originally had this game marked as a potential pitfall for Kelly's crew.
No longer (that's instead forthcoming). Look for the Irish to be favored by 8.5 points and finally win a game by double digits in a series that's played far-too-close for comfort during the Kelly era.
November 23 vs. BYUHere comes trouble.
The Cougars are surging, winners of five straight with a bye week upcoming, followed by a trip to Wisconsin on November 9. The recipe for a Senior Day (mild) upset win in South Bend is there:
- Battle tested? BYU has faced Texas, Utah, Georgia Tech, Houston (7-1), Boise State, and soon the Badgers. It's an independent schedule not far below Notre Dame's slate with one second tier (Oklahoma) and three third-tier squads (Michigan, Michigan State, Arizona State), plus a team with some bite in USC.
- A defense that can hold its own? The Cougars rank No. 24 in pass efficiency defense and 46th vs. the run. They've allowed 21.3 points per game (the Irish are at 21.6) with similar schedule strength.
- Dual-threat offense? Quarterback Taysom Hill ranks sixth nationally in total offense and is on a hot streak, hitting for 756 passing yards over the last two games with another 197 on the ground. The Cougars rank 12th nationally in total offense, running for 258 per game and have compiled more first downs than all but six FBS teams (Texas A&M, Oregon, Texas Tech, Ball State, Boise State and Ohio State).
In Game Eleven, Brigham Young will rank as the best offense Notre Dame's defense has faced this season.
Inside the Odds: When the season began, Vegas listed the matchup's odds in favor of Notre Dame by 8.5 points. The Irish are unlikely to enter this Senior Day contest favored by more than six points -- less if BYU is able to play Wisconsin to the wire in Madison.
A final thought: Will the bye week preceding the contest help or hinder the Irish with so much at stake?
November 30 at No. 5 StanfordThe Cardinal has much work to do prior to Notre Dame's post-Turkey Day visit. Stanford is two games into a brutal second-half stretch (one that followed an unexpected October loss at Utah) with wins over UCLA and Oregon State already in the books and games vs. Oregon (Thursday, November 7 in Palo Alto), at USC, and vs. chief rival California.
Among the myriad keys to the contest vs. the Irish will be Notre Dame's pass protection vs. the relentless Cardinal front seven.
Inside the Odds: A recent Vegas line showed the Cardinal favored by as many as 11.5 over Notre Dame. A dream scenario for Irish fans -- and FOX SPORTS 1 -- is a 10-1 Stanford squad, likely ranked No. 3 as a result of their win over Oregon, facing a 9-2 Irish team.
Television ratings and a week of program-building hype aside, forcing the Cardinal to play under pressure and in the role of heavy favorite would add unexpected intrigue to the teams' regular season finales, and turn the often overlooked intangibles slightly in Notre Dame's favor.
If Stanford loses to Oregon, a team certain to enter as a mild road favorite? It will only impact Stanford's stake and mindset entering their Senior Day game vs. Notre Dame -- the Irish would still receive a major rankings bump with a win on The Farm.
For Kelly's fourth-edition Irish, a 4-0 record in November is the only end that will suffice.