I'm going to take a stab at the answer to this question and I could be right or I could be wrong. This is just my own personal opinion and take my opinion for what it's worth—not much.
The Irish have talent on both sides of the football. They have draft-worthy players and they've always had draft-worthy players. What the Irish are lacking are superstars, top-shelf talent at a number of positions like the Miami's or USC's of the world.
Irish fans are quick to point out the many number of Irish players who are in the NFL. The Irish do have many players in the NFL but my question to those that doubt me, how many of them are stars in the NFL?
How many starting quarterbacks on NFL rosters came from Notre Dame? How many starting running backs? How many starting wide receivers? How many former players are stars in the NFL?
Let's look at Miami for example. How many star players in the NFL can you name? Of the top of my head, Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, Edgerrin James, Jeremy Shockey, Ed Reed, Dan Morgan, Clinton Portis, Andre Johnson and Santana Moss. I'm not even thinking about offensive lineman and defensive lineman. I'm sure if I really thought hard, I could come up with a lot more.
When the Irish had players like Jerome Bettis, Ricky Watters, Aaron Taylor, Andy Heck, Derrick Mayes, Rocket Ismail and Tim Brown, they were at the top of college football. This is the difference between a good team and a great team.
Miami has a wealth of star players and can afford to have games where they didn't bring their "A" game like Boston College last year and Florida and West Virginia this year because they have players like Kellen Winslow Jr. who step up and make the plays that change the game. I rarely know safeties around the country but we all knew who Ed Reed was because he made play after play. We know who Shaun Taylor is because he continues to make big plays.
The real question is, can these Miami players actually get into Notre Dame? Not many of the current Miami stars could've got into Notre Dame but there were a few. There are also a few at USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Penn State and schools across the country who make the big plays needed to get over the hump. The Irish need to make sure they land the majority of the superstar players that can get in and can get you over the hump.
If you look at this team objectively, this team has talent at a number of positions. They just need to find top-shelf talent at most positions and I don't think they are quite there yet.
Should we blame Tyrone Willingham and his staff for not having this superstar talent? Miami would have two losses without a few stars on their team. Losses happen if you don't have the big-time talent and Miami would've lost to Florida and West Virginia without some of their stars.
A team cannot possibly get up to that sky-high level every single game like Notre Dame did for the first eight games last year. If you think hard, the Irish had moments when they didn't play to that level but rose to the occasion and made plays to turn the game around.
The Irish have as much or almost as much talent as anyone they've played or will play on their schedule. I don't see many teams they've played or will play in the first eight games that the Irish clearly have more talent than. The difference in games like this is emotion, momentum and turnovers. Execution is everything when you can't out-talent a team and the Irish didn't execute well all year. They did against Pittsburgh and the Panthers didn't and that was the difference in the game.
The Hurricanes can afford to have an off game or two against inferior teams with regards to talent. Sooner or later, one of their stars will step up and make the play. When they play anyone with similar talent, they will need to bring their "A" game, much like they did against Florida State.
The schedule that the Irish play every year is one of the most difficult in the country. I'm not making excuses for Willingham because the Michigan game was inexcusable. In the other losses however, the Irish were very close to winning each game. The offense has struggled and in times of struggle, you need a star player to step up and make the play needed to turn the game around. The Vontez Duff forced fumble in the Washington State game would be a good example.
The good news is that Willingham and his staff appear to be signing that talent in players like Ryan Harris, Brady Quinn, Victor Abiamiri and Freddie Parish. Many more in this freshman class will develop and becomes star-quality players. If the Irish want to get to that next level with this schedule, they are going go need to sign top-shelf talent every year. That is the only way I see this team getting to that next level.
Talent isn't everything and coaching means just as much, if not more than talent. Still, coaching can only take you so far and you need the talent to be a truly great team. Could the Irish be 4-1 right now and ranked in the top 15? Sure, they could if the offense had come together earlier. Who's at fault at this point doesn't matter. Fixing the problem does and Willingham and his staff appear to be committed to doing just that.