SOUTH BEND — During the longest gap between regular-season games in 102 years of Notre Dame football, the Irish were able to maintain their No. 5 ranking in both major college football polls.
The bigger challenge may be holding firm or moving up once ND (2-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) resumes Saturday with their first game in 21 days — a primetime date with Florida State (1-2, 0-2 ACC). The same holds true for the rest of the pre-Clemson schedule, ahead of the No. 1 Tigers (3-0, 2-0) visiting Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7.
While the ACC placed four teams in the top 8 of the Associated Press poll released Sunday, Notre Dame’s October opponents and the two it beat in September — Duke and South Florida — are a collective 7-13. Pitt (3-1, 2-1), which fell out of the rankings after a 30-29 loss to NC State on Saturday, accounts for almost half the wins among the six teams.
Suddenly, style points matter — or at least detectable improvement from week to week does for the Irish. And it’s not just the lack of apparent octane in ND’s early-season schedule, but the fact that not all AP voters are yet voting for the Big Ten powers, instead deferring to once they begin their delayed schedule on Oct. 24.
No. 6 Ohio State and No. 9 Penn State are already lurking.
The College Football Playoff selection committee won't weigh in until Nov. 24, after the Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American conferences also have booted up for the fall.
Probably the most tangible part of the eye test that Notre Dame could enhance is quarterback play. Ian Book’s pass-efficiency rating is 133.0, good for 39th nationally among the 65 FBS quarterbacks with enough passing attempts and games played to qualify.
The best thing Notre Dame has going for it this week is improving health. The Irish had to postpone their Sept. 26 road game at Wake Forest (rescheduled for Dec. 12) and were unable to bump it to this past Saturday, initially a mutual open date, because of COVID-19 complications.
The numbers peaked at 39 Irish players unavailable between those testing positive (25) and those in quarantine through contact tracing (14). Head football trainer Rob Hunt expected those numbers to drop to 15, combined in isolation and quarantine, by this past Saturday.
Notre Dame went nine days without practicing before resuming Thursday. An intrasquad scrimmage was planned for Sunday.
The last time the Irish went as many as 21 days between regular-season games was 1918, coach Knute Rockne’s rookie season, during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Thirty-five days elapsed between the Sept. 28 opener against Case Tech, a 26-6 win, and a hastily scheduled 67-7 rout of Wabash on Nov. 2.
The original opponent, Nebraska, canceled just as the Irish were departing for Lincoln, Neb.
Florida State will likely roll out its third starting quarterback of the season Saturday night in Louisville transfer Jordan Travis.
First-year FSU coach Mike Norvell benched captain James Blackman after losses to Georgia Tech and Miami. Freshman Tate Rodemaker started against FCS school Jacksonville State on Saturday and threw a pick-6 on his first collegiate pass attempt.
Travis, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound redshirt sophomore helped the Seminoles rally from a 21-7 deficit with 210 yards passing and 48 yards rushing in the 41-24 victory.
He’ll face the nation’s No. 5 pass-efficiency defense Saturday night and the No. 9 defense in yards per play allowed (4.38).
“We know we have no wiggle room for the kind of setback that we had,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of the COVID-19 outbreak. “And we’ll see if it’s a setback or a pause.
“How we play against Florida State will be the narrative that everybody writes relative to this either being a pause in dealing with COVID and the realities of it or it was a major setback.”