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Matchup with Clemson Begins Season Defining 3-Game Stretch for Notre Dame Football

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Notre Dame has the opportunity to make a huge statement over the next few weeks.

So happy right now...
So happy right now...
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

For the third time in 4 years the Fighting Irish are 4-0 to open the football season. For the third time in 4 years Notre Dame enters October ranked inside the Top 10 of the AP Poll.

This weekend head coach Brian Kelly has the opportunity to win his 50th game for the Irish. The other Notre Dame coaches with more victories are Dan Devine (53), Frank Leahy (87), Ara Parseghian (95), Lou Holtz (100), and Knute Rockne (105). Among the coaches who have led Notre Dame for at least 5 seasons Kelly now sits 8th all-time with a .710 win percentage.

Saturday night in Death Valley will be a large test whether Kelly is going to inch closer to these historic greats who dominate the history of Notre Dame or whether he'll remain a tier or two below. However, it's just not about this weekend at Clemson.

Prior to the season I thought a 4-0 start was very achievable and even though I picked against Notre Dame 2 weekends ago (thanks, injuries) here we are with that exact record. Still, it's games 5 through 7 that I was always worried about--this stretch is likely to define Notre Dame's season. Beating 1 team in the S&P Top 50 so far is nice but nothing to write home about right now, especially with Georgia Tech now at 26th and perhaps falling further soon.

Here's what the Irish could achieve over the next few weeks against the 6th, 40th, and 9th rated S&P programs in the country:

CLEMSON

All things considered this could be a win on par with the victory against Oklahoma in 2012. Maybe not so much from a standpoint of proving things to the rest of the country but the Sooners had already lost that season and while they were a very good team they squeaked out several victories to a 10-3 campaign in a very down year for the Big 12.

The Sooners were No. 8 back on that fateful 2012 meeting with the Irish while Clemson comes into this weekend ranked No. 12, undefeated, and frankly from a recruiting and program standpoint a stronger program than Oklahoma a few years ago. The Sooners were 40-13 from 2009 to 2012, pretty great overall, but all Clemson has to do is go 8-4 this season to have less losses from 2012-15.

NAVY

The Midshipman bogeyman can be put to rest with an Irish victory this year. A defensive performance like we saw against Georgia Tech would provide the program with much needed optimism to face the triple option in the future. And don't look now but a Notre Dame win in a couple weeks would be their 5th straight in the series.

Ask your average Irish fan and I bet they'd tell you it certainly doesn't feel like we've piled that many wins in a row.

Finally, this is Keenan Reynolds' last season in Annapolis. While I wouldn't expect the Navy program to crumble--they might have an easier future in the AAC instead of being independent--the matcup with Notre Dame is likely to get a lot more difficult for a couple seasons without Reynolds running the show.

USC

A lot depends on just how good the Trojans finish this season. However, handing them their 2nd loss of the season by mid-October (assuming they take care of business against a pretty average at best Washington team this weekend) could go a long way to ensuring Steve Sarkisian remains on a very hot seat.

Additionally, moving Kelly's record against USC to 4-2 would feel good, plus avenging last year's loss would feel even better. There will be a ton of recruits in the house and I don't have to tell everyone how this is such a must-win game for Notre Dame even if they come in with a 5-1 record. The Irish cannot lose this game.

How is this going to break out for Notre Dame? If they go 3-0 with a backup quarterback and all the injuries the hype is going to get out of control. A 2-1 record with a win over USC probably keeps the momentum high for a 10+ win season. A 1-2 record or worse might portend bad things as back-to-back poor second half performances would be a terrible narrative to deal with in the off-season.

Buckle up, we've got big football games coming up.