Expectations for Notre Dame Must Reset

When the season started, the expectations for Notre Dame football were through the roof. Perhaps, quite unreasonably so. Head coach Marcus Freeman won virtually every day of the offseason, but now, just two weeks into the season, he’s sitting with an 0-2 record. Including last year’s Fiesta Bowl loss, he’s the first Irish coach to lose their first three games with the team. As the Irish recover from a stunning loss, here’s a look at some overreactions to avoid, along with the reset expectations for Notre Dame moving forward.

Overreactions to avoid

It’s easy to overreact. And some of those overreactions are justified. But some are just ridiculous conjecture by a fanbase that hasn’t seen an 0-2 start since 2011.

Marcus Freeman can’t coach

Sure, Freeman put his name in the history books, and not in a good way. That 0-3 start is ugly, albeit jumpstarted with a pair of top-ten losses. And there’s no sugarcoating this defeat versus Marshall. A three-touchdown favorite at home, Notre Dame never once looked the part. But an 0-3 start isn’t some sign of a complete and utter inability to coach. Plenty of coaches have had similar slow starts to Freeman. Brian Kelly didn’t start 0-3 – he won his first game as a head coach versus Purdue. But he lost the next three. And in his second year, that 2011 season, he lost his first two games.

As Notre Dame fell to the Thundering Herd on Saturday, many lamented that Kelly always won these games. But of course, he didn’t. He lost to Navy and Tulsa in consecutive weeks that first season, finishing 7-5 in the regular season. The next year, the Irish opened with an upset loss to South Florida. Kelly still finished his tenure with Notre Dame as the all-time program leader in wins. Throwing it back even further to another successful Irish coach, Lou Holtz started his time in South Bend with a 1-4 record. He went 5-6 that year, improving to just 8-4 his second season. He won a national championship in his third season. Struggling in one of the highest-profile coaching jobs in all of sports is not groundbreaking news. With minimal amounts of offensive contributors returning, early hiccups were certainly expected, even if this loss was worse than a hiccup.

This isn’t praising what Freeman has done on the field. He had the Irish up and ready to go for the Ohio State game, and for that, he can be commended. Beyond that, it’s been downright awful. But let’s not pretend a lot of great coaches haven’t had bad starts.

Tyler Buchner can’t be the guy

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner was atrocious on Saturday. There’s no other real way to put it. He threw two interceptions on passes that should not have been thrown. The first was recoverable, and the Irish defense forced a punt. The second was on what needed to be a game-winning drive in the final five minutes. Buchner had his favorite target, tight end Michael Mayer, wide open for a first down, but locked in on his first read. He tried to fire a bullet on a comeback route to sophomore Jayden Thomas, but Thomas never had his man beat, and the route was jumped for a pick-six.

Throw in the non-turnover mistakes, like the overthrow of a ridiculously wide-open Braeden Lenzy to end the half. The Irish could have gone to the locker room up 14-9 with all the momentum in the world. Instead, they were down 9-7 and coming out on defense. On a 4th and 4 shot to Lenzy, Buchner lofted a ball that was just out of bounds. Lenzy elevated for the catch but had zero opportunity to get a foot inside the white lines. These were bad mistakes that cost Notre Dame the game.

But again, he’s two starts into his college career. And now, he’s probably going to be out for several weeks at minimum with the shoulder injury he went down with in the fourth quarter. Buchner has clear talent, but he is incredibly raw. He only played one year of high school football and spent his debut year working in an entirely different system. There was hope that an offseason of preparation would get him up to speed but it hasn’t. And maybe that shouldn’t have been the expectation. So, whenever he returns, give Buchner some time. He’s not dead in the water because of a bad game.

Recruits are abandoning ship

They are not. Short term, this is not a concern. Top 2023 recruits Drayk Bowen and Christian Gray tweeted out sentiments regarding their strong commitment to the Irish. 2024 5-star quarterback recruit C.J. Carr retweeted both of those players. No one is decommitting because of one loss. Recruits get football, unlike a lot of the irrational Twitter users out there. Upsets happen – and they happen to virtually every program. A 42-game winning streak against unranked opponents is incredibly impressive. An upset is going to happen on occasion. Notre Dame has built a strong recruiting class on the strength of Freeman’s abilities to sell Notre Dame not just as a team, but as a school.

The sky is not falling regarding the Irish future. They’re going to have some elite classes entering the folds soon, adding some much-needed depth, particularly to the offense.

Reset your expectations for Notre Dame

First off, the expectations for Notre Dame must be reset. The College Football Playoff is out. And honestly, with a loss as bad as this on the resume, the Irish may be out of the running for a New Year’s 6. But no doubt, they have to win their final ten games to even have a shot at that. Right now, the Notre Dame offense looks like one of the worst in college football. Their starting quarterback is injured. After playing Cal this weekend, the Irish face off against UNC on the road, and a BYU team that just toppled a top-10 Baylor squad. The road hardly gets easier.

Right now, it’s about survival. Notre Dame needs to scratch together a couple of wins. They need to figure out exactly what they can do to stir this stagnant offense. Once that is accomplished, the Irish can start eyeing bigger goals.  Freeman is quite green when it comes to head coaching experience. So what are realistic expectations for Notre Dame? This team is not a national contender, but they can still be a great squad. A great squad finishes 10-2, but realistically, given the start and the remaining schedule, Notre Dame should be really happy if the Irish pull off a 9-3 mark. 8-4 would be a reasonable expectation. Clemson, USC, and BYU remain extremely daunting games. UNC and Syracuse feel at least quite tricky, given Notre Dame’s struggles so far.

The Irish are now out of the national spotlight. They’ll play two straight unranked games, and hopefully being out of the limelight will let them breathe. This team needs to find an identity and develop young talent that plays a huge role in this team’s future. So what are the expectations for Notre Dame? Start with very few, and let this team grow and rise to meet expectations.

It’s been a while (2016, really) since Notre Dame faced the ugly reality of a team simply never in contention. But, there’s still a lot to play for. And Notre Dame has a roster filled with young talent at the skill positions that are going to continue to improve. Road bumps were expected, they’ve just been bigger than anticipated. Now, it’s about finding a way to bounce back.

“You really can’t just sulk in these losses. I mean, we’re 0-2, yes, and it’s horrible, it’s horrible,” Mayer told the media after the game.  “But we’re just going to prepare for the next team.”