Marcus Freeman's tall task: Keeping Notre Dame relevant in the playoff picture

After going 9-4 in his first season, Freeman still needs to prove he's the right guy to lead the Fighting Irish.

When Notre Dame named Marcus Freeman, just 35, as its head football coach, there was no telling if he was up for the task, let alone over the long haul.

After one season, there still isn’t.

Freeman is still the likable, charismatic guy who was promoted from defensive coordinator back in January of 2022. He’s recruited well. He’s coached well. He’s represented the university well.

“Well” isn’t generally enough at Notre Dame.

There were troubling early stumbles to Marshall and Stanford. There was a mid- and late-season rebound that saw the Irish finish 6-1, including victories over Clemson and South Carolina. The final record was 9-4.

Pretty good, especially for a first-year coach. Promising even. Not necessarily great though, especially at a school that grew used to Brian Kelly’s consistent competence.

Kelly couldn’t win the big one at Notre Dame, but he repeatedly got the Irish to the big one — a BCS title-game appearance and two playoff bids. Maybe most important, he rarely lost a game the Irish should have won and returned the program to national prominence after years of critics saying it was impossible.

Kelly also arrived after having won two national titles at Division II Grand Valley State, winning a MAC title at Central Michigan and going 12-0 at Cincinnati. He was far from a rookie coach.

So here comes Marcus Freeman, Year 2, with all eyes still on him. That’s the beauty and the beast of the Notre Dame job.

It begins Saturday against Navy at 2:30 p.m. ET from Dublin, Ireland. This is, by far, the most intriguing game of an otherwise lackluster Week Zero slate, mostly because everyone wants to see what Notre Dame is capable of this season.

Can the Irish make the playoffs behind quarterback Sam Hartman, who transferred in after a star career at Wake Forest? If not, can they change the dynamics of the playoff race considering they play Ohio State, Clemson and USC? Or is a backslide possible?

Freeman on Monday raved about the program’s strong preseason camp, improved depth and great leadership. He also told a story about athletic director Jack Swarbrick sharing with the team about the shared characteristics that Swarbrick witnessed from the 10 national championships various Notre Dame teams won under his watch (women’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and so on).

Namely, stop worrying about winning the national title, which football hasn’t captured since 1988, back in the poll era.

“Don’t focus on the national championship,” Freeman said. “… We don’t talk about ‘national championship.’ Don’t worry about Saturday. Focus on today. I think our players understand. You are in a competition today vs. your opponent. We’re both practicing today, so who is going to win today? That’s got to be your mindset.”

That has to be Freeman’s mindset as well.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 30: Head coach Marcus Freeman of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on before the start of the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl against the South Carolina Gamecocks at TIAA Bank Field on December 30, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Marcus Freeman enters his second season as Notre Dame's head coach after going 9-4 in his first season. (James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The Notre Dame job has crushed otherwise successful, and far more experienced, coaches in the past. The national scope of recruiting, the unique demands of playing high level football at a smallish, Catholic private school and the fishbowl existence of having fans who root for you, but many others who root against you is grinding.

While Freeman has maintained Kelly’s strong recruiting, he hasn’t yet elevated it with the kind of five-star, game-breaking talents that Notre Dame fans hoped for when he was hired. Again, it’s early. The Irish are in more of those battles now, which is at least step one. Beating the Georgias and Alabamas comes next.

You can also tag this about what is unique to life in South Bend: Notre Dame’s ability to maintain its coveted independence is, at least in part, reliant on the program being able to negotiate a favorable media rights deal with NBC. The current contract runs out after next season, meaning negotiations are underway for a new one to begin in 2025.

The Irish don’t need to make the same money as the SEC or Big Ten, but they likely can’t fall too far behind either. There has been plenty of speculation that the Irish could receive about $60 million from NBC (and its partial ACC deal), which likely would do the trick.

Part of the optimism is that Notre Dame’s incoming athletic director, Pete Bevacqua, is currently chairman of NBC Sports. If the network was about to bail on (or even cool on) the Irish, presumably he wouldn’t take the new job.

All of that said, it’s a lot more fun negotiating with a 10-2 team than, say, a 6-6 one.

So Freeman will go practice by practice, day by day, game by game. There is excellent talent all over the roster and in Hartman he has the best Notre Dame quarterback in years.

The schedule is littered with hurdles though — not just the triumvirate of Ohio State, USC and Clemson, but at North Carolina State, at Duke and, yes, maybe an always tricky Navy team with a brand-new coach.

Can Marcus Freeman deliver big on that?

If so, then he’ll establish himself as the long-term answer in South Bend. To call this a big season in a young career is an understatement.