You have to go back to the COVID-wracked 2020 season to find Notre Dame’s last big win. The Fighting Irish were playing as a temporary member of the ACC for the year, and on Nov. 7, they welcomed Clemson to South Bend for a ranked-on-ranked matchup.

The Fighting Irish were 6-0 at that point in the season and ranked No. 4 in the AP poll. Clemson — led by Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, and one of the country’s most tenacious defenses — was 7-0 and was in its ninth consecutive week atop the AP poll. (Lawrence, however, missed the game and DJ Uiagalelei filled in.)

Notre Dame had a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, a 23-10 lead in the second quarter, fell behind in the fourth, and forced overtime with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ian Book that tied the game with 22 seconds remaining. In the second overtime period, Kyren Williams ran in his third touchdown of the game to give Notre Dame a 47-40 victory.

The win was Brian Kelly’s first over a top-5 opponent at Notre Dame. It was also the program’s first victory over a No. 1 team since the Irish defeated Florida State nearly 3 decades prior.

After the game, longtime Notre Dame journalist Pete Sampson wrote this for The Athletic

The moment also cast Notre Dame (7-0) not only as a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff but as a heavyweight capable of throwing punches once it gets there. The Irish will almost certainly meet the Tigers (7-1) again in the ACC championship game on Dec. 19 in Charlotte. And if that game feels like this one, perhaps Notre Dame and Clemson will both continue on to the final four.

Sampson was right on both fronts. Notre Dame did face Clemson again in the ACC Championship Game, and both schools made it to the College Football Playoff.

But what looked like a turning point in the modern era of Notre Dame football that November night was eventually re-scripted as just more of the same.

In the rematch in Charlotte on Dec. 19, Clemson waxed Notre Dame. With Lawrence back in the lineup, Clemson scored 34 unanswered points from the end of the first quarter through the start of the fourth to run away with a 34-10 result. Williams, who ran for 140 yards in the first meeting, was held to just 50 on 15 carries.

Two weeks later, Notre Dame faced Alabama in the Rose Bowl and was once again blown off the field. The Tide had a 31-7 lead in the fourth after a Will Reichard field goal and won the game 31-14.

The Irish haven’t been back to the CFP since.

With the field expanding to 12 teams for the 2024 season, Notre Dame is widely expected to make a return to the postseason event. FanDuel has odds of Notre Dame making the CFP priced at -170. DraftKings has the same priced at -165.

As is usually the case in the preseason, Notre Dame is among the 10 teams with the best odds to win the national championship (+2200 at FanDuel) and widely expected to land in the preseason AP Top 10.

(The Irish were fifth in ESPN’s post-spring top 25, fifth in the version at Sporting News, seventh in the version at The Athletic, eighth in the version at CBS Sports, and 10th in the version at 247Sports.)

Coach Marcus Freeman welcomed the ninth-ranked high school class in the country for the 2024 cycle, per the 247 Composite. The Irish signed the seventh-ranked high school class in 2022, and Freeman is currently working on the country’s top-ranked 2025 class. While transfers haven’t been a huge part of the equation (sans the most important position, which we’ll get to later), Freeman has brought elite young talent to South Bend early in his tenure.

On defense, Freeman has a top-end unit. Rylie Mills and Howard Cross III provide Notre Dame with disruptive forces at the line of scrimmage. Xavier Watts, the Bronko Nagurski winner and unanimous All-American in 2023, returns as arguably the country’s top defensive back.

And after Freeman missed on his preferred OC candidate ahead of the 2023 season, he landed his top choice this offseason, luring Mike Denbrock away from LSU and back to South Bend.

An OC-QB partnership between Denbrock and Duke transfer Riley Leonard is a source of optimism. The defense provides a high floor for the program in 2024. A more-than-manageable schedule provides confidence that Freeman can take the program back to the CFP.

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Notre Dame will play only three true road games all year. Neither Clemson nor Ohio State are on the schedule. The Irish will face zero teams in the SP+ preseason top 10, only 3 teams in the 11-25 range, and 8 teams ranked outside the top 50.

Can this Notre Dame team break ranks and win a game that matters? It’s possible the Irish won’t play any such game until the first round of the CFP. That obviously wouldn’t help.

Since the start of the 2014 season, Notre Dame is 4-12 against top-10 opponents. One of those wins came over USC last October, when the Trojans were still clinging to a top-10 ranking while playing like a squad worthy of dropping out entirely.

Another came against Clemson on Nov. 5, 2022, when Notre Dame was unranked. There was also the previously mentioned 2020 win over Clemson, and a 2018 win over No. 7 Stanford.

In games of serious significance, Notre Dame has repeatedly come up short. The Irish lost a top-10 battle to Ohio State early in 2023. They lost a top-5 game to Ohio State to begin the 2022 season.

They lost a top-10 game to Cincinnati at home in 2021 in what would be the final game the Irish played against a ranked opponent. Cincinnati went on to make the CFP field; Notre Dame finished fifth.

They lost a top-10 contest with Georgia in 2019. They got hammered by Clemson in the 2018 CFP semifinals. They got bulldozed by Miami on Nov. 11, 2017, when they were sitting third in the country with 3 regular-season games to play.

Notre Dame has some very real demons in the closet. And sometimes the weight of all those past failures is too heavy.

Now, to Denbrock and Leonard.

Notre Dame finished last year seventh nationally in scoring (39.2 points per game), ninth in offensive efficiency (7.0 yards per play), and 12th in pass efficiency (9.1 yards per pass attempt). It was a fine season on the surface, if not a little misleading.

Led by Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman, Notre Dame averaged 46 points a game and 8.3 yards per play through the first 4 weeks of the season. Things then ground to a halt against Ohio State, when the Irish mustered 14 points and only 5.5 yards per play.

They didn’t really recover from that. Yes, Notre Dame eviscerated a hapless Pitt team and walked all over a dreadful Stanford team. The bowl game was a nothing-burger against a dilapidated Oregon State roster. Over the final 8 weeks of the regular season, Notre Dame averaged 35.6 points a game 6.3 yards per play.

They looked bad in a win over Duke. They looked bad in a loss to Louisville the following week. The beatdown of USC was more about USC’s deficiencies. And they looked once again poor on the road at Clemson.

Both tackles and the center are gone from the offensive line. Audric Estime left for the NFL as well. There’s optimism about the backfield moving forward, with Jadarian Price and Jeremiyah Love fitting in nicely to what Denbrock wants to do. But the offensive line and the wide receiving corps have much to prove.

(Perhaps Jaden Greathouse can make good on his promise and be that game-breaking wideout that has eluded Notre Dame for years.)

Which puts an even bigger onus on Leonard, who was a breakout stud in 2022 before injuries mucked up his 2023 campaign. Leonard injured his ankle in September 2023. That injury required surgery in mid-January and a follow-up procedure in March that caused him to miss most of spring ball.

His absence meant first-team reps were available for backup Steve Angeli — a positive should Angeli be forced into action for any reason during the 2024 season. Though Notre Dame would surely like as much on-field time with its new quarterback to work with its new offensive coordinator.

Because Denbrock just guided an LSU offense that produced the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and highlighted 2 first-round draft picks at wide receiver, it’s more than reasonable to be excited about Leonard’s potential with his new school.

During the 2022 season with Duke, Leonard threw for 2,967 yards, ran for another 699, and scored 33 total touchdowns.

Notre Dame has a ton riding on that ankle and plenty of questions about the protection it will be able to afford Leonard. That’s enough to make anyone a little leary of getting too invested in the title potential of this group. Even still, Leonard’s best season featured a QBR that ranked 28th nationally and an EPA total that ranked 22nd amongst quarterbacks.

ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives Notre Dame a 59.1% chance to make the CFP next season, which is the fifth-highest of any team in the country. Notre Dame has just a 4.8% chance of winning a national championship, however.

So, is Notre Dame a true contender to win a national championship in 2024? Until we have more answers than questions on offense, that answer looks to be the same as it has been in recent years.

Verdict: Pretender

Best value for a title bet on Notre Dame: +2500 (BetMGM)