Before I begin, full disclosure: Based on Saturday's loss to Michigan State, I don't believe the world is ending, I don't believe the sky is falling and I don't believe the Irish are doomed to wallow in 2007-like misery for the remainder of this season. I do believe the Irish had a bad game. They were listless, lacked confidence and made far too many mistakes.
Now having said that, three games into the season, Notre Dame is still something of a curiosity. While, certainly, there have been improvements, a tremendous number of questions still persist. Answering these will go a long way to determining where this season will ultimately take us:
- Is this year's Michigan State game just a carbon copy of last year's Purdue game? In both cases, ND went on the road, played poorly in the first half, came out firing in the second, got the score close and, ultimately, watched the other team pull away. Does this loss say anything different about this team and, if not, have they actually progressed?
- Are Notre Dame's shortcomings due more to youth or inexperience winning at this level? As I had mentioned here, this year's team is not much different than the 1988 squad in terms of overall experience. That team, however, had learned to win the season before. Can this team forge its own winning identity and shed the mindset of losing from last year?
- In a similar vein, how does this year's team deal with adversity? Teams comprised largely of younger players tend to rise and fall on emotion - can Notre Dame pick themselves up, get fired up and beat Purdue or will there be a hangover following their first loss?
- Can the Irish succeed without a running game? Not being able to run the ball hurts your ability to burn clock which puts a lot of pressure on the defense. If a tired defense is continually asked to stay on the field, does Notre Dame have enough talent to win shootouts?
- Running back is arguably the deepest position on this team. If the Irish aren't focused on running the ball, but still want to have their 12 best offensive players on the field at any given time, how do they incorporate Hughes, Aldridge and Allen? Of the three, only Allen appears to be consistent receiving threat; can you afford to not have the other two involved in the offense?
- Can Notre Dame win a close game? It has become painfully obvious that the Irish lack the ability to kick a field goal (0 for their last 6 going back to last season); what happens if the game comes down to one? Will ND risk it or will we have a repeat of last year's Navy game?
- Can the Irish stop the run? Looking at the upcoming schedule, the Irish face three solid running teams (BC, Navy and USC) and, at least one other, with the potential to move the ball on the ground because of their running back (Pitt). Can ND's d-line and linebackers rise to the occasion? Will Notre Dame's safeties be completely worn down by mid-season?
- Can Notre Dame be a team or just a loose collection of talented players? With three top-10 recruiting classes in a row, there's little doubt the Irish have talent, but will it translate into wins? Are they less than the sum of their parts?
- Will Notre Dame get better as the season progresses? Given their youth, talent and schedule, the Irish should be a markedly better team in November than they were in September thanks to the experience they'll gain along the way; can they progress from week to week?
For fans, one of the most frustrating things about team like this year's Irish is you just don't know what to expect each week. With a more established team (good or bad), it's usually safe to approach games as either "we should win" or "we are screwed." Typically, only a handful of games during the season fall into the toss-up category. Unfortunately, unless there is dramatic and consistent improvement, every game Notre Dame plays between now and their November 29th date with the Trojans will be more question mark than exclamation point.