Notre Dame fell to 2-4 on Saturday, which means that even if the Irish somehow find their second wind in this season’s second-half, even if they do the unthinkable and win all of their remaining games, they will at best finish with a nine-win campaign. It would come a year after they finished 10-3, which means that they entered this year with the opportunity to do what no Irish teams before them had done in 23 years -- post back-to-back double-digit win seasons.
The fact that that streak is now officially extended for at least two future years means it will take at least 25 years for Notre Dame to win 10 or more games in consecutive seasons, something they have not done since a three-year run from 1991 to 1993.
And that really is the ultimate Rorshach Test for a program and a fan base that has every right to be frustrated with how this once-promising autumn has unfolded.
Is Notre Dame an elite program that has fallen on unspeakably harsh times in the past two-plus decades? Or, is this proof that the Irish are just not that special anymore, haven’t been in any of their current players’ lifetimes and that they better appreciate the rare peaks they do get like they did last year, or in 2012?
Ask yourself those questions while examining this nightmare of a season, which right now looks like it will need a second-half Hail Mary just to merely gain bowl eligibility.
Ask yourself those questions when examining the tenure of Brian Kelly, who got the Irish to the national title game in 2012 and was a few plays away from the College Football Playoff with a decimated roster last year, but who this year is a 2-4 coach whose play-calling is in question, whose habits of publicly criticizing players are drawing ire from all corners and who became a top-five national Twitter trend Saturday -- because of a loss at NC State.
Ask yourself: If Kelly, the nation’s winningest active FBS coach, can have the struggles he’s had in his seventh year on the job at Notre Dame -- in his 26th year of college head-coaching, in a career that has had a grand total of one losing season in its previous 25 years -- well, then, who wouldn’t stumble in this job?
Of course Notre Dame needs to be much better than it has been this season. Of course, the Irish being unable to sustain legitimate success in consecutive years is dumbfounding. It is a place that oozes tradition, smarts, money and an unmatched national following. More is demanded at Notre Dame, as it should be at a place that has 11 consensus national titles and is the second-winningest program of all time.
And yet, whenever evaluating coaching performances and expectations, it is important to bear in mind: There are 64 Power-5 programs not named Notre Dame, and you know how many of them have managed to put together consecutive 10-win seasons in the time since the Irish last did it?
More than half of them -- 36. And that does not even include Utah, whose winningest years came in the Mountain West Conference. Or Louisville and West Virginia, since their best two-year runs came in the old Big East and American Athletic Conference.
Boston College has had back-to-back 10-win seasons since 1993 (2006-07). Maryland has done it (2001-03). So, too, has Colorado (1994-96).
About the only other supposedly elite program that has not posted two 10-win seasons in a row since 1993 is Auburn, but the Tigers do have a national title and a pair of final No. 2 rankings going for them in the last dozen years alone.
Thirty-six programs have done something Notre Dame will not have done for at least 25 years. That is reality. So, too, is another number that coincides with that 1993 timeline -- 40.
As in, there have been 40 different Power-5 teams that have a won major bowl game since Notre Dame last did it, back when the Irish won the 1993 Cotton Bowl. Again, this group does not include Louisville, West Virginia and Utah; or even party-crashers BYU, Houston, Boise State and UCF.
The group does include NC State (1994 Peach), Virginia (1995 Peach) and even Kansas (2007 Orange).
All of this is the present-day history that Notre Dame is up against. It is as unthinkable to type as it probably is to read, but that is the albatross that hangs over Kelly and whomever ends up succeeding or replacing him, whenever that time may come.
And, regardless of where you fall on the inkblot exam, that perspective cannot be lost when folding the 2016 page into what has been a rather pedestrian two-decade chapter of Notre Dame football.