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Is Notre Dame Staring at a Must-Win Game on Saturday?

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First Contest With Wisconsin Since 1964 Takes On Added Significance

Purdue v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

In case you have been living under a rock for the past several weeks, #18 Wisconsin Badgers will take on #12 Notre Dame this Saturday at Soldier Field. While this is not your classic “must-win” contest for the Irish, the match-up between these two Midwestern programs is beginning to take on the feel of a “must-win” for Notre Dame for several reasons.

Continuing to Change the National Narrative

Despite the fact that Notre Dame is 46-8 as a program since the start of the 2017 season, the national media continues to take shots at the Irish and imply that Notre Dame is a relic of the past. Brian Kelly has led the Irish to two out of the last three College Football Playoffs. Although neither trip resulted in a win, the Irish lost to the eventual national champion both times (Alabama 2021 and Clemson 2019) and had a smaller margin of defeat than what the loser of the national championship was able to manage. Yet, the message continues to be that Notre Dame doesn’t belong in the upper echelon of the sport, while other teams continue to get a pass for absorbing worse losses than the Irish.

Wisconsin is currently a 5.5 point favorite against the Irish, for what reason I am not sure. The Badgers are currently riding a 6-game losing streak against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and have already lost to Penn State at home this season. Wisconsin is certainly no slouch but the program has not won a Big Ten Championship since 2012. These are the types of games that Irish fans should expect to be winning at this point in the Brian Kelly era. A win continues to provide objective data points that Notre Dame has entered a new era. Realistically, the program should be considered a top-6 program based on the past four seasons. On the other hand, a loss continues to fuel the age-old story that Notre Dame can’t consistently win big games.

Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images

Provide a Path to the Playoff

If Notre Dame emerges victorious on Saturday, a realistic path to the playoff can start to be traced. While the remainder of the schedule is far from easy, one could argue that after facing #8 Cincinnati the following week in South Bend that the Irish should be favored in the remainder of their games. An undefeated Notre Dame team would almost be a shoo-in for the College Football Playoff. Realistically, Notre Dame would finish with wins over three probable ranked opponents: Cincinnati, North Carolina, and Wisconsin and could potentially add to that total depending on how the seasons progress for USC, Virginia, and Virginia Tech.

A loss to the Badgers would not eliminate Notre Dame from playoff contention but would completely remove any margin for error. The likelihood of a one-loss Irish team making the playoff would center on how the Power 5 Champions finish their seasons. The 2021 Irish are still finding their footing with a mix of veterans and first-year players. A loss to kick of the toughest five-game stretch of their schedule could result in a 2014 type season. Further, a loss to Wisconsin and eliminates the ability to claim a marquee win. If the Irish followed up a loss to the Badgers with a loss to Cincinnati, Notre Dame would be staring another 2019 season squarely in the face as fans all recall how Notre Dame was treated in the polls following losses to Georgia and Michigan.

Purdue v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Assert Dominance Over the Big Ten

Quite frankly, I always believe there is a little bit extra on the line when Notre Dame faces an opponent from the Big Ten. Having grown up in Big Ten country myself, I have been constantly peppered with comments about how if Notre Dame had to face the physicality of the Big Ten on a weekly basis; they would be an 8-4 team most years. For starters, Notre Dame joined a conference last year and won it (thanks ACC). The following is a small history lesson for Big Ten fans. In 1909, Notre Dame stunned national powerhouse Michigan by the score of 11-3. Michigan then canceled the contest between the two teams at the 11th hour in 1910 as Notre Dame was en route to Ann Arbor due to Fielding Yost, Michigan’s legendary coach, questioning the eligibility of two Notre Dame players. Coincidentally, no team from the Big Ten would appear on Notre Dame’s schedule until 1917, when Wisconsin agreed to play the Irish. Yost, who possessed known anti-Catholic sentiments and was still bitter over the 1909 upset, used his influence to sway league members to vote against accepting Notre Dame to the conference in the early 1920s.

Currently, there is little incentive for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten as it would regionalize the school in terms of recruiting and national scheduling flexibility. In my opinion, every game against the Big Ten is a chance to stick it to the elitist attitudes that exist within Big Ten country towards Notre Dame. Of note, Notre Dame holds a 219-124-15 all-time record against Big Ten opponents.

Toledo v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

As stated earlier, this is not the traditional “must-win” game for Notre Dame. However, digging below the surface reveals that the stakes are higher than normal for a team that Notre Dame hasn’t faced since 1964.