Just 2 weeks ago, Notre Dame was ranked among the top 5 and looking forward to the first of many successful seasons under young, charismatic head coach Marcus Freeman.

Now, after a tight loss at No. 2 Ohio State and a stunning loss to Marshall, the FIghting Irish are 0-2 and facing the earliest program “gut check” in many years — maybe even dating to the Charlie Weis or Tyrone Willingham eras.

An unbeaten but hardly unbeatable Cal team will visits Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC), and if Notre Dame’s defense continues to play well, the Fighting Irish finally should land 1 in the win column for Freeman, who is 0-3 as the Dick Corbett Head Football Coach in South Bend, Ind. But even if the Fighting Irish claim a much-needed “W” on Saturday afternoon, what do realistic expectations look like for Notre Dame in 2022? With starting quarterback Tyler Buchner now lost for the season with an AC joint injury, is there a viable path to 9-3 and a possible date in the New Year’s Six? How far can a strong defense that hasn’t even played its best football yet take Notre Dame?

Saturday Road answers these questions and more — Mailbag style — ahead of Notre Dame’s contest Saturday against the Cal Golden Bears.

How does the loss of Tyler Buchner change the offense? (Tom, Dayton, Ohio)

Look, the loss of Buchner certainly hurts. There’s a reason he won the job over Drew Pyne to begin with, and Pyne offers nowhere near the dual-threat capability Buchner did. Notre Dame is at least 2 recruiting classes away from being anything beyond average on the perimeter, which complicates things for Pyne, who is a thrower and pocket quarterback before he’s a playmaker.

Nevertheless, Pyne spent the summer at the Manning Academy improving his accuracy and he’s a more accurate passer than Buchner, at least on limited video. A lifelong Notre Dame fan, Pyne now gets to lead the program he grew up loving. It’s a great story and will be even better if he can guide what is certain to be a more pass-happy Notre Dame attack to offensive success for the 1st time this season.

What’s going on with Chris Tyree? This offense needs playmakers! (Susan, Chicago)

It does, Susan. It does.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let’s at least recognize that it isn’t like Tyree hasn’t been playing. He has been on the field for 55 snaps this season, which leads all Notre Dame running backs. His 12 offensive touches are more than any Notre Dame players other than Buchner, running back Audric Estime and All-American tight end Michael Mayer. In other words, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees hasn’t forgotten Tyree exists.

The fair question, I think, is whether Tyree has touched the football enough. Given the paucity of playmakers for the Fighting Irish, it’s fair to ask if Tyree’s touches should be closer to 12 per game than 12 in 2 games. Further, given Estime is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, perhaps he’s overused at 19 carries on the season.

Rees is known for deploying multiple looks offensively, sometimes even within the same possession. Doing that with the idea of getting Tyree the football would be wise moving forward for Notre Dame.

Why is the offensive line struggling so terribly? (Frank, Hershey, Pa.)

In 3 words? Youth and injuries.

Jarrett Patterson gutting it out through a clear injury didn’t help Saturday. He clearly wasn’t his All-American-caliber self. Patterson took heat for leaving the field and not singing the alma mater after the game, but I think that had more to do with his needing immediate postgame treatment than it did sour grapes.

The youth comes in with Blake Fisher, the 5-star offensive tackle who, at least for now, appears to be a bit behind, physically and mentally. He has not taken the expected leap Freeman foresaw during the preseason, and that has hurt the Notre Dame line to date.

“If we want to be the program we aspire to be, we’re going to have to be an O-line and D-line driven program,” Freeman said Saturday, Sept. 10, the day of his first home loss as the Irish head coach. “That’s not going to change, but we’re not where need to be. We know that.”

Notre Dame was bullied up front by both Ohio State (no shame in that) and Marshall (shocking). Being able to at least stand toe-to-toe with the opponents remaining on the schedule not named Clemson is essential. This line will get better, but it clearly isn’t yet the strength of the team that Freeman and many in the media thought during the offseason that it would be.

Another thing worth pointing out here? Since the offensive line is struggling terribly, Rees has to scheme better. Notre Dame isn’t going to succeed in 1-vs.-1 battles up front enough to be vanilla on 3rd- and 4th-and-short. Being creative will be harder without Buchner’s running ability, but it’s time for Rees to find innovative ways to move the sticks on 3rd-and-short.

The defense is forcing punts, but where are the turnovers? This offense needs short fields! (Dan, Appleton, Wis.)

The Fighting Irish haven’t produced a turnover during their opening 2 games, despite maintaining advantageous field position in both contests. Freeman’s defensive scheme calls for exotic blitz pressures and tough man-to-man and zone-blitz defenses designed to pressure quarterbacks into mistakes and produce turnovers. None of that has happened to date, and while the Irish are forcing plenty of punts, they are allowing 5.4 yards per play without taking the ball away and giving their offense the short fields Dan is correct to suggest they need.

One thing Notre Dame needs terribly is better play from NFL first-round draft prospect Isaiah Foskey. We’ve seen Foskey fired up on the sidelines, laying into teammates and trying to fire the bench up for 2 consecutive weeks. What we haven’t seen much of is production. Through 2 games, Foskey has 9 tackles, but only 1 sack and 3 quarterback pressures. He needs to be better.

What is a realistic record for Notre Dame after the 0-2 start and loss of Buchner? (Ryan, Franklin, Tenn.)

There will not be a College Football Playoff for Notre Dame this season. That much is determined. After that, there is plenty to play for moving forward.

The path to the New Year’s Six is very narrow at 0-2, but it has hardly evaporated.

One way to look at the 0-2 start is that no one expected Notre Dame to be 2-0 entering the Cal game. In that respect, it is one loss behind schedule. To make that up, the Irish need to win every game they “should” win, and steal 1 contest against a Top 25 opponent, whether it be the Oct. 8 game in Vegas against BYU or the Nov. 5 home tilt with Clemson or the Nov. 26 trip to Los Angeles for Southern California. Win 2 of those 3, and the New Year’s Six is very much in play. Win 1 of them, and 8-4 — and a decent bowl game — is realistic. It’s the 8-4 number that seems most likely now, but it could be worse if Notre Dame doesn’t improve markedly on offense over the remainder of the campaign.