Once again, the long view may help to put things in perspective.
One of the most useful ways to evaluate teams is to look simply at their records against teams with winning records and against teams with .500 or worse records. (For convenience, I'll refer to .500 teams as having "losing" records, though technically that's not so.). Let's compare N.D. 2002 to N.D. 2003.
N.D. 2002 vs. Teams with winning records: 6-3
N.D. 2002 vs. Teams with losing records: 4-0
N.D. 2003 vs. Teams with winning records: 3-6
N.D. 2003 vs. Teams with losing records: 2-0
In both years, N.D. has handled teams with losing records. In fact, N.D. in 2003 has dispatched its two opponents with losing records by a combined margin of 69 points. The 2002 edition of the Irish were better against teams with winning records, but had a few close calls, notably the Michigan game (2 points), Purdue (7 points), Pittsburgh (8 points) and Air Force (7 points). Still, 6-3 against teams with winning records is pretty impressive, particularly compared with other squads.
The most salient feature of both seasons, though, is the extremely high proportion of teams that N.D. plays with winning records. Of the course of two years, N.D. has played 18 games against teams with winning records and only 6 against teams with .500 or worse records.
For the sake of comparison, I looked at major conference teams from 2003 who had won 8 or 9 games to ascertain their records against "winners" and "losers." For each team, their record against teams with winning records follows the "W" and against those with losing records follows the "L." The teams are listed in descending order of their B.C.S. rankings.
Iowa (9-3)W: 4-3
Purdue (9-3)W: 2-3
Florida (8-4)W: 3-4
Washington State (9-3)W: 2-2
Mississippi (9-3)W: 3-3
Nebraska (9-3)W: 2-3
Oklahoma State (9-3)W: 2-3
Maryland (9-3)W: 4-2
Minnesota (9-3)W: 2-3
West Virginia (8-4)W: 3-3
Clemson (8-4)W: 2-3
Oregon (8-4)W: 2-2
Pittsburgh (8-4)W: 2-3
Arkansas (8-4)W: 3-4
Michigan State (8-4)W: 2-4
Missouri (8-4)W: 2-3
Virginia Tech (8-4)W: 2-4
A few observations. Of this group of 17 teams, all of which had seasons that were mostly successful, only two (Iowa, #12 B.C.S. and Florida, #14 B.C.S.) played most of their games against teams with winning records. None of them came close to approaching N.D.'s distribution of 9-2 in favor of teams with winning records. In fact, ALL of them collected most of their wins against teams with losing records.
Only two of these teams (Iowa and Maryland) earned winning records against teams with winning records. Most of them loaded up on wins against teams with losing records, managed to finish at or slightly below .500 against teams with winning records, and called it a successful season.
Consider that N.D.'s win rate against teams with winning records was .333 and its win rate against teams with losing records was 1.000.
This exactly duplicates Virginia Tech's and Michigan State's win rates, it's just that those teams had the luxury of playing 6 teams with losing records, while N.D. has thus far faced only two. If one projects N.D.'s win rates against both categories against all of these schedules, N.D. would have finished 7-5 against Iowa's, Arkansas's or Florida's schedule and would have been 8-4 or 9-3 against everyone else's.
Now, none of this is to advocate a schedule filled with Troy State's and Utah State's. To a certain extent, this year's schedule was unfortunately hard for N.D. A huge number of Irish opponents had their best teams in five years or more. But it is relevant in terms of trying ascertain where the program really stands. N.D. is a whole lot better than just about any other team smarting from 6 losses.