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We Need to Talk About Notre Dame Football’s Compete Level

There’s a difference between cockiness and confidence

NCAA Football: Stanford at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I already wrote a post this summer discussing the biggest defects in the 2022 Notre Dame football program’s performance, but I somehow left this item off the list when it might be the biggest issue of all. Notre Dame played to the level of its competition last season and it paid the price.

If you disagree with that conclusion, I’ll point out that a team with Notre Dame’s talent doesn’t suffer home losses to Marshall and Stanford by five points and two points, respectively, without playing to the level of the opponents. But it was more than just the losses.

Since the start of the 2017 season, four Notre Dame teams have logged at least five wins by at least 20 points in a single year (including bowl games). The leftovers are the 2020 COVID year and last season, which both logged three such wins. Additionally in that span, last year’s team had the lowest average margin of victory at 15.9 points. Aside from the 2018 team (which averaged a victory margin of 16.5 points), no other team won by a lower average than 19.5 points.

I think it’s amusing that a 9-4 team that nearly saw its season go off the rails is so statistically similar to two Notre Dame teams that went undefeated in the regular season and made the College Football Playoff. But it’s notable that the 2020 team logged an additional five two-score wins on top of its three wins by 20 or more points; Marcus Freeman’s debut team only had four wins total by at least two scores. And if you drop the largest margin of victory from that 2018 team (33* points) and the 2022 team (44 points), the 2018 team drops from 16.5 to 15 points and the 2022 team drops from 15.9 to 12.4 points.

*The real ones know that Notre Dame would have beaten Syracuse by 36 points in a Yankee Stadium shutout if Dino Babers didn’t kick a coward’s field goal.

To further this analysis, I also felt like brushing up on my high school statistics education and using a little metric called standard deviation because it felt applicable. (Disclaimer: I’m well aware that my reasoning here could be flawed. To my colleague JoBro13, I apologize if my rudimentary statistics skills give your data analytics a bad name.)

Put simply, standard deviation measures how dispersed a set of data are from their mean. When it comes to average margin of victory, a higher standard deviation means there was variation in the margins of victory (a mix of blowouts, comfortable wins, and close calls). Conversely, a lower standard deviation means that Notre Dame won its games by around the same number of points.

In my untrained opinion, a lower standard deviation can mean one of two things: either a team brought roughly the same level of effort every game and consistently dominated opponents or a team played to the level of its competition and thus won by similar margins.

The first scenario is like the 2017 Irish team that ran all over opponents and won seven of its ten victories by 20+ points (with a margin of victory standard deviation of 11.5). Drop the largest margin of victory (35 points) and the standard deviation is still 11.1 (because, again, that 2017 team dominated everyone).

The second scenario is last season’s team (standard deviation of 12.6) that messed around with teams like Cal, BYU, UNLV, Syracuse and Navy. Drop the largest win (44 points) and the standard deviations drop from 12.6 to 7.3 (because the 44-point win over Boston College does a lot of heavy lifting as the only time the 2022 Irish dominated a decidedly inferior team).

OK, that’s enough math.

I’m not saying that the 2022 Irish didn’t win games “comfortably.” But there should have been more blowouts (and more wins period). As one last example, with all the bowl game opt-outs South Carolina had in the Gator Bowl, Notre Dame should have won that game by more than a single touchdown. Granted, Tyler Buchner threw two picks-6 to keep the Gamecocks in it, but remember that one of those came when Tommy Rees called a pass play on the goal line even though the Irish could have put it away by just pounding the rock.

Syndication: Notre Dame Insider Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

Both Buchner and Rees are off to Alabama, but Freeman remains as the figure who sets the culture for this program. It’s up to him to push his players’ buttons in such a way that they don’t get complacent and look past opponents. That’s how teams get got by the likes of Marshall and Stanford.

The 2023 schedule isn’t a cakewalk by any means, but Freeman’s squad needs to show progress in the compete department in addition to pulling at least one upset against the Big Three of USC, Ohio State and Clemson. That may be a tall task, but this is Notre Dame. You can’t chant TGS (“The Gold Standard”) if you don’t live up to it.