The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two seasons after 4-8, undefeated Notre Dame looks masterful

Things are good in South Bend. (Matt Cashore/USA Today Sports)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It’s the province of coaches to slog through the world with their ancient saying “one game at a time,” part of the unalloyed misery with which they must conduct their lives. American society pays them extravagantly in part to compensate for the relentless wretchedness of their time here on Earth.

It’s the privilege of the rest of us to look at things seven games at a time, as we can today with No. 7 Notre Dame, or No. 4 Clemson, or No. 3 Ohio State, or even No. 15 Kentucky — Kentucky! — except in those cases when we should look at things four games at a time, as with No. 6 LSU, or even eight games at a time as we must with, gosh, Nebraska.

Happy October, and so Notre Dame (5-0) must play at Virginia Tech, at home against Pittsburgh and then Navy, at Northwestern, at home against Florida State and Syracuse and at Southern California, all seven games of which one might say, Hmm. All of that has become relevant because, two seasons after 4-8, and in Brian Kelly’s unlikely ninth season dwelling amid the sneering ghosts, Notre Dame looks masterful.

College football winners and losers Week 5: Clemson suddenly looks vulnerable

Its 38-17 win over then-No. 7 Stanford Saturday night was an act of mastery, from the quarterback (Ian Book) who spread the ball to 10 catchers to a running back (Dexter Williams) who returned from suspension to chew up 161 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown pop right off the bat. “I’ll never forget this night,” Book said while crediting the 10 other offensive players plus 11 defenders and saying he’s trying to “just bring some juice and be a leader.” He hails from El Dorado Hills, Calif., near Sacramento, and near where the citizens of a bizarre land once flocked to rummage around for gold, and he has brought the juice in his two games as starter for a team that already beat another top-15 team (Michigan) with a different starter (Brandon Wimbush).

If at times the nation has forgotten about Notre Dame because it eschews a conference in a nation that spends a lot of time arguing about conferences, we’re all on Notre Dame watch now. “I thought their attention to detail was great,” said Kelly, the erstwhile linebacker at Assumption (Mass.) whose defense already was compelling before he piled a good Book atop it.

Having gone 96 yards in eight plays to beat Penn State, 27-26, Ohio State (5-0) must play Indiana, Minnesota, at Purdue, Nebraska (oh no), at Michigan State (hmm), at Maryland and Michigan (hmm). If anything, it should gain strength from having trailed 26-14 as the clock snarled seven minutes to doom. Having gone 94 yards in 13 plays to escape Syracuse 27-23, and having had a third-string quarterback throw a 20-yard pass on fourth-and-6 along the way, Clemson (5-0) must play at Wake Forest, North Carolina State (hmm), at Florida State, Louisville, at Boston College (hmm), Duke and South Carolina. Some games which aren’t hmm games could become hmm games, as in Tallahassee.

Ohio State puts on an encore performance, rallying late to shock Penn State, 27-26

The Tigers forge on in a week in which their season-long starting quarterback from 2017 opted to transfer out, and their freshman tower of a quarterback went out Saturday with concussion symptoms, and their coach said he’d gladly take back the transferring guy, and they trailed Syracuse 23-13 in the fourth quarter before showing again that the shelved old term “Clemsoning” ought to be resurrected and given an etymological shift to mean “mastering the close games (plus the other games).”

All the while, Coach Dabo Swinney has handled Kelly Bryant’s departure with a ton of grace and dignity, smiling when he said, “The game was kind of a reflection of the week.” As he said, “I’ll never forget this one,” he moves on with a rarefied program in a rarefied era.

Eras, of course, can morph, so while Kentucky (5-0) isn’t gawking from the mountaintop just yet after impressive Southeastern Conference wins at Florida and over Mississippi State and South Carolina, it does inhabit some fresh realm. It’s the kind of realm where running back Benny Snell Jr. can say, accurately, “We’ve come a long way,” while cornerback Derrick Barty Jr. can say, also accurately, “We celebrated” the win over South Carolina, “but, I feel like it wasn’t as usual because we didn’t play up to our standard.”

Only in some kind of parallel universe would we peg Kentucky at Texas A&M next Saturday as something sumptuous, so hello from a parallel universe. Taking it seven games at a time, it’s at Texas A&M (hmm), Vanderbilt, at Missouri (hmm), Georgia (hmm), at Tennessee (hmm), Middle Tennessee and at Louisville (hmm).

There’s no LSU in there, and that’s probably good for everybody involved, because with its characteristic defense and the transfer quarterback Ohio State didn’t choose (Joe Burrow), LSU already won against Miami (Fla.) at a neutral site and at Auburn, so as it has gone home to collect tricky wins over Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss, with LSU we take it four games at a time, and here they are: at Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, a week off and then Alabama.

Holy bayou mercy. If LSU wins all of those, the season should end on Nov. 4, the trophy should be shipped to Baton Rouge, and think of all the gasoline and electricity saved from there to January. Meanwhile, the 45-16 win over Ole Miss Saturday night brought the widely beloved sound of Coach Ed Orgeron’s voice, warbling out these words: “Disappointed in the minus-one turnover margin. We’re gonna get that fixed.”

Those are words so American, they ought to appear on those gauzy videos at airport immigration control.

Yet while taking it seven games at a time or four games at a time, the spellbinding case of Nebraska (0-4) requires eight games at a time, and here they are: Wisconsin, at Northwestern, Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman, at Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State and at Iowa. None of those games cause a hmm, because they’re just a grim search for a win.

Nebraska hasn’t won in eight games, the longest such stretch in the history of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and somehow, if the search for mild merriment winds up with only a win over FCS Bethune-Cookman, the Oct. 27 replacement for the canceled game of Sept. 1 against Akron, the 1-11 might equal an 0-12 for grimness.

Misery-wise, the first wordless seconds of the video of first-year Coach Scott Frost’s post-game press conference after the 41-21 loss Saturday to Purdue conveyed it thoroughly. That face. My god, that face. It’s a winner’s countenance contorted beyond misery, into agony. Then the words began, and they included, “I’m tired of looking at it. There’s really no difference from a coaching perspective between ‘I can’t do it’ and ‘I won’t do it.’ The people that won’t make good decisions, the people that are hitting people three yards out of bounds, if that keeps up I’m gonna side with the guys that do it the right way, because we’ve got a lot of warriors on this team and a lot who play well enough to win, but I’m tired of coaching an undisciplined team.”

Their penalties through merely four games: 11 for 95 against Colorado, 10 for 77 against Troy, 10 for 79 at Michigan and 11 for 136 against Purdue. Their standing in the nation: 129th and last, at 96.8 per game. The very idea you could see “Nebraska” lodged down there is a reminder it’s essential to take things one game at a time.