There is and has been very little that’s pretty about Notre Dame other than the end results: four games, four wins and a place among those teams lurking behind the main contenders in the early College Football Playoff race.
Until a furious surge in the fourth quarter, the 41-13 win against Wisconsin was another underwhelming performance for a team that previously struggled to put away Florida State, Toledo and Purdue.
No. 10 Notre Dame is a flawed group with no clear answer at quarterback and a nonexistent running game to go with a defense that has rapidly improved since the opener against the Seminoles. The Irish held No. 15 Wisconsin to 318 yards with just one third-down conversion and forced four turnovers.
At quarterback, the offense was sparked by backup Drew Pyne, who replaced an injured Jack Coan in the second half and threw for 81 yards and a touchdown. The Irish had a negative yardage record on the ground until the end of the fourth quarter.
The performance in the final quarter against the Badgers also suggests the Irish have another gear and the potential to manage a schedule that includes two imposing opponents, Cincinnati and North Carolina, along with a run of beatable competition from the Power Five and Group of Five.
This combination of mediocrity and one quarter of dominance makes the Irish hard to gauge in comparison to the other teams atop the Football Bowl Subdivision. The fact that the Fighting Irish have not looked like a championship team is more important than the record of their football performance.
The two questions that will come to define Notre Dame’s 2021 season land on the same issue — whether the Irish can get back into the playoff — and illustrate the dynamic of style vs. substance in the playoff era.
The first asks whether Notre Dame is one of the four best teams in the FBS. It is clear that the answer to this question is no.
The second asks whether the Irish still can finish in the top four of the playoff rankings. It is possible, the simple answer to which is yes.
In a year that has not unfolded as predicted and as many of the top teams in the preseason have not lived up to expectations, Notre Dame remains in position to make a playoff run in the second half of the regular season.
The Irish aren’t the only team to draw red flags during an unbeaten September. Oklahoma is in close contact with Nebraska and Tulane. Alabama has had a difficult time running the football. On offense, Georgia and Texas A&M are both dealing with injuries.
Other preseason contenders have raised eyebrows while accumulating early-season losses. Clemson lost to Georgia at the opener, and has been a disaster offensively. Ohio State lost to Oregon in the opener and has been a disaster for defense. The Irish managed to get through September despite having to deal with similar problems.
That there has been almost nothing impressive about four wins in four games misses the point: Notre Dame keeps winning. Flawed or not the Irish will still be an issue in the playoff debate.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg