It's really not that complicated: This five-game span, beginning last week against Michigan State and ending Oct. 24 against Boston College, could determine Charlie Weis' future at Notre Dame.
Five games in six weeks. Win all five and Weis' team is 7-1, goes from unranked to ranked and becomes a legitimate player in BCS bowl conversation. And depending on how November shakes out in places such as Tuscaloosa, State College, Austin and Gainesville, Notre Dame could even become part of the BCS Championship candidate list.
Or not. Because if the Fighting Irish can't do better than 1-4 or 2-3 in this stretch, Weis will find himself on the working end of the hottest seat you can find. The debate over his job status will once again overwhelm a program in need of 10 wins, football relevance and a December without coaching controversy.
"I'll choose not to adopt the premise of your column," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said politely.
No hard feelings. Is it unfair to define Weis' future by what happens from Sept. 19 to Oct. 24? Maybe. Probably. But when Notre Dame dismissed Tyrone Willingham after just three seasons, it changed the dynamic of how the university did business. It also changed the perception of Notre Dame as a place that honors its commitments to its football coach.
So with all due respect to Swarbrick, Weis' status is fair game. And if you don't believe me, you weren't listening to the postgame interview NBC sideline reporter Alex Flanagan did with Weis after his team squeaked out a win against Michigan State last Saturday. The questions were less about the 33-30 heart-thumper and more about Weis and the personal importance of the victory.
Five games: Michigan State, at Purdue this Saturday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), home against Washington on Oct. 3, a bye week and then home against USC on Oct. 17 and then home against Boston College on the 24th. If Notre Dame wants to make any national noise this season, it has to win all five. If it wants to turn Weis' coaching future into a complete nonissue, it has to win all five.
The come-from-behind win against Michigan State was vital because (A) it saved ND from a 1-2 start; (B) it was at home and, (C) it ended Sparty's depressing streak of road-game victories (six) against the Irish.
A win at Purdue is important because it would probably nudge Notre Dame into the Top 25. Baby steps, right? Plus, the Irish have stunk it up on the road during the past two-plus seasons. They're 3-8 in opponents' stadiums, including the stunner at Michigan earlier this month. Road wins mean something, especially after Northern Illinois went into West Lafayette and stuck it to the Boilermakers last Saturday.
A win against Washington tells America that Notre Dame can beat the team that beat USC -- and do it at home, in front of those Irish fans who remain skeptical of the Weis regime. But if U-Dub wins, Huskies first-year coach Steve Sarkisian (a former USC offensive coordinator) looks like the Next Big Thing and Weis looks like stale bread.
A win against the University of Pete Carroll is an absolute must. Notre Dame hasn't beaten USC since two coaches ago (Bob Davie) and Weis is 0-4 against the Trojans. Average margin of defeat in those four losses: 24 points. Weis has to prove he can beat an elite program, as well as break the USC chokehold.
A win against Boston College is another must. Notre Dame hasn't beaten BC since BD (Bob Davie again) was there. The Irish have lost seven in a row to USC and six in a row to the Eagles, so back-to-back streak-breakers would be a statement. And did we mention Weis is 0-for-2 against Boston College by double-digit margins each time?
Weis has six years remaining on his contract after this season. That's a long time, and no doubt there's a significant buyout Velcro'd to his deal. But this is Notre Dame. If Swarbrick wants him gone and university president Rev. John I. Jenkins signs off on the recommendation, there are enough heavy-hitter alums and "friends of the program" who can help bankroll Weis' going-away present.
Unlike previous athletic director Kevin White, who was cut out of the decision-making loop when Willingham was dismissed, Swarbrick actually has some power. He wouldn't have accepted the Notre Dame job without it.
"We evaluate every program at the end of the season," said Swarbrick, reciting the AD mantra. "Nobody has ever heard me characterize this as a coach evaluation."
But in Weis' case, it is exactly that. Either you believe in him and his football road map, or you don't. Either you consider him worthy of that lucrative and long-term contract, or you don't. He is the answer or he is the problem. There is no in-between.
So given that contract and the recent questions about Weis' future -- and the questions that are still to come -- why not end any speculation about the program and its direction right now?
"Well, we engage in it at the end of the year," Swarbrick said. "I don't give any interim reports or measures as we go. I will say this is a significantly better team than last year."
He's right; it is better. Better depth. Better experience. Better talent and speed. Then again, this is Year 5 of Weis' rule, and it's not as if last season's 6-6 regular-season record, including losses in four of their last five games (to USC and BC, of course, and -- gasp -- to Syracuse) will go into the Notre Dame football time capsule.
Swarbrick will judge Weis by results -- "I will be the first to concede the most important is wins and losses," he said -- but also by other criteria. In fact, there's an actual two-page list Swarbrick uses to assess each of Notre Dame's athletic programs. Academic performance, disciplinary issues, NCAA violations, quality of recruits relative to academics and athletics, quality of the program itself (is it tracking up or down?) they're all on the list.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame followers have their own list, and they're not waiting until December or January to do the performance review. Some of the criticism directed at Weis is valid and deserved. Some of it is shrill and reactionary. But there is no denying he is at an intersection of his Notre Dame career.
Is he a two-year wonder who began his Notre Dame career by leading the Irish to consecutive BCS bowl games (and the multimillion-dollar payouts that come with those bowls)? Is he a two-year flop who delivered 3-9 and 7-6 seasons? Or is he the architect of an Irish program at last positioned to return to the national rankings and national championships?
Like it or not, we'll likely know by the end of these five games.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.