The outset of November means the initial phases of college football’s unofficial playoff has begun, and thus the late Jim Valvano’s three-decade-old tournament credo, “Survive and Advance” again permeates each contender’s Saturday.
But merely surviving is no way to live, and without improvement the vast majority of college football’s 16 legitimate remaining contenders will fall by the wayside as have their predecessors annual in the sport’s defining month.
Such improvement is incumbent upon newly minted No. 5 Notre Dame, which begs the question(s):
What is Notre Dame’s best, and have we seen it to date?
“Probably the opener,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of a 38-3 drubbing of Texas. “I thought that was probably our most complete game. I look at it as a head coach in terms of all three units playing together at the same time.
“I think there's some times where offensively we've been dynamic, then defensively for three and a half quarters we played as well against Georgia Tech as any time we've played…
“I think complete game, Texas,” he continued. “Then I'd have to probably lean towards segments of games that we played really well. Second half against Clemson defensively. Last quarter against USC offensively. You're picking different times. That's why we think our best football is still ahead of us.”
Snippets indeed. They include the first 3.5 quarters of defensive football against Georgia Tech and the final three quarters defensively in Clemson. Feel free to add to that the final 22 game minutes vs. USC – on both sides of scrimmage.
“I think it's kind of a hard question to answer,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt of the topic, speaking specifically of the defense. “I think at times we play really good defense, really stingy. Then at times it seems that maybe we're not assignment correct enough or we miss a tackle or something happens and we give up an explosive play, which is obviously detrimental to having a good defense.
“So I think like when we can limit those big plays, really just kind of play down to down defense, make people try to drive on us, we can be good.”
And on the opposite side of scrimmage, where Notre Dame does its best work?
“I feel like every game there's spurts in which you can say is our best football,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “I believe that the two 90-yard drives against USC were a good example of us playing good Notre Dame football, being able to adjust ourselves from the run game to the pass game as successful as we did, put together two long drives.
“At the same time Notre Dame hasn't come close to their best offensive game, not even near it. We're not even close to our peak yet.”
The man in charge thinks his squad is close.
“I think we've been tested the last four weeks,” said Kelly of the unending quest for improvement. “(Facing) Three undefeated teams and USC, really strengthens your football team in terms of all phases of the game. I think we're going to be better going into November.
“It was a very strong schedule. Those were good football teams that we had to play. I think we'll be better for it going into November.”
They’ll have to be to make it through unscathed.