For better — or worse — Notre Dame begins Season 2 under coach Marcus Freeman

Are the Irish, who play Navy on Saturday in Dublin, for real? And what to make of Freeman, anyway?

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Notre Dame Spring Football Game

Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman looks on during the Blue-Gold spring game on April 22, 2023.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

They’ll belly up Saturday afternoon at the Commonwealth Tavern in Roscoe Village, the Kerryman in River North and McNally’s in Morgan Park and want to know:

Is Notre Dame for real this season?

Might this finally be the year the Irish win their first national championship since 1988?

Or are we in for a season of disappointment?

And what do we make of this Marcus Freeman guy, anyway?

Hints at the answers begin to come in the very first college football game of the season, 13th-ranked Notre Dame against Navy from Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. It’s one of seven FBS games on the Week 0 schedule and easily the highest-profile one of the lot.

“You can never measure your team until you face an opponent,” said Freeman, who’s coming off a 9-4 rookie season as coach in which the Irish were up, down and kind of all around.

But the Irish don’t want to be simply in the business of beating Navy, not that there’s anything wrong with doing that. Last year, in his first crack at the Midshipmen, Freeman saw his team put 35 points on the board in the opening half only to go scoreless from there and barely hang on, 35-32. It nearly was Freeman’s third unconscionable defeat, joining the earlier ones against outmanned Marshall and the worst Stanford squad since before a fresh-faced Jim Harbaugh got to Palo Alto, California, in 2007.

Worth noting, perhaps: Freeman’s fancy-pants predecessor, Brian Kelly — now coach of fifth-ranked LSU — got smacked around in his first Notre Dame-Navy contest, 35-17 in 2010. It’s hard to believe even in retrospect, but that was the Irish’s third loss in four years to the Middies. Kelly’s Irish won by 40-plus in each of the next two seasons, though, and roared to the national championship game in 2012.

So it took Kelly three years to build his first monster team. Freeman might not be there yet even though he inherited a dramatically better situation from Kelly than Kelly inherited from in-over-his-head Charlie Weis. Then again, why not? That sure looked like Notre Dame beating the brakes off Clemson 35-14 last November. And now Wake Forest transfer Sam Hartman — the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (110) and the FBS leader over the last two seasons (77) — has joined the party. Hartman could strut onto the field and instantly be the best Irish quarterback since Brady Quinn.

“There is no substitute for experience — none,” Freeman said. “I don’t care if you’re the head coach or the quarterback. That’s what gives me confidence in Sam Hartman. There’s nothing that’s going to be able to make him too high or two low. He’s thrown interceptions, he’s made bad decisions, he’s made great plays and long touchdown throws. He knows what to expect, and that, to me, is the No. 1 thing that he brings.”

That and Beats by Dre headphones, courtesy of a slick little NIL deal. Hartman hooked up each of his teammates with a pair for the fight to Dublin.

“It’s like Christmas every day with Sam Hartman,” a teammate joked in a video posted by the school.

“My senior citizen, Sam Hartman, blessed us,” cracked another.

Funny stuff. On a more serious note: Why can’t the talented Irish be in the mix for the final four-team College Football Playoff?

“We don’t talk about winning national championships,” Freeman cautioned.

Instead, Freeman tells his players every 24 hours or so that they have a new day to win. Pile up dozens — nay, hundreds — of daily “Ws” and the rest will take care of itself. At least, that’s the thinking.

Either way, the Irish have daunting days against Ohio State, USC and Clemson looming. There are potentially difficult trips to North Carolina State, Duke and Louisville. Not that theirs is an especially brutal schedule — lots of SEC and Big Ten teams have it harder — but the Irish are trying to take a noticeable step forward in 2023. They’re shooting for better, meaner, tougher, more consistent and all that good stuff.

Losing to Ohio State or USC, both of which happened last season, might be forgivable. Coming up short against the Marshalls and Stanfords of the world ought to be a mortal sin for anyone who dons the head coach’s whistle in South Bend.

And the Middies? Falling to them would be disastrous for Notre Dame and for Freeman, who already spent one season bailing water out of the boat after starting 0-2 and 3-3 in his debut.

The Irish landed in Dublin on Thursday after an overnight flight, and Freeman kept them awake for walkthroughs and a practice before sending them to bed. Maybe that was the best way to deal with jet lag — by fighting through it.

We should be able to tell if the strategy worked early on against Navy — in the schools’ 96th meeting — with Freeman actually in the role of more experienced head coach. Brian Newberry stepped up from defensive coordinator to replace longtime Middies coach Ken Nuimatalolo.

Is Notre Dame for real?

Let’s start to find out.

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