How good is Notre Dame? The question becomes more urgent with each victory by the Fighting Irish. Their 40--14 beatdown of hapless Washington State in San Antonio last Saturday won't turn any heads, but with a 6--2 record and a No. 22 ranking in the BCS, Notre Dame becomes more relevant every week. If the Irish were to win out and finish 10--2, it's hard to imagine their not cracking the top 14—the minimum requirement to be eligible for an at-large BCS bid, so coveted by schools such as TCU and Boise State. "We've put ourselves in position for good things to happen," says Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
The victory over the Cougars was the kind rarely enjoyed by the Irish this season. None of their previous four wins had been by more than seven points—a troubling stat for a team that averages more than 31 points. Despite narrow losses to Michigan and USC, the Frenetic Irish have yet to win over poll voters. They are 21st in the USA Today poll, 20th in the Harris. "Their inability to shut anybody down makes people mistrust them," says former USC coach John Robinson.
Led by junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame's offense is more than good enough. The Irish rank fifth in the country in total offense (457.6 yards per game), primarily because the 6'3", 223-pound Clausen has developed into a bona fide Heisman contender—and arguably the best quarterback in the game. He is second in the nation in pass efficiency, completing 66.9% of his throws with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions.
It's the defense that might hold Notre Dame back. Its root problem is a front four that hasn't generated much of a pass rush. Too often coordinator Jon Tenuta has had to resort to the blitz, which leaves the secondary vulnerable to big plays. Notre Dame ranks 109th against the pass and has allowed five scoring tosses of 20 yards or more.
After a date with Navy in South Bend this Saturday, road games against No. 14 Pitt and Stanford are sandwiched around a visit from Connecticut. Weis says there's a chance that star wideout Michael Floyd will be back for the Nov. 14 game against the Panthers. Floyd, a 6'3", 220-pound sophomore, scored five touchdowns and averaged 27.5 yards a catch through the first three games before breaking his collarbone in a Sept. 19 win over Michigan State. With a team that must score plenty of points to keep alive its BCS hopes, Floyd can't return soon enough.
Now on SI.com
Look for Gene Menez's Heisman Watch every Monday at SI.com/bonus