No one is about to anoint Notre Dame a player in next year's national title race, and it's way too early to even say the Irish have regained their place among the country's elite programs.
But Notre Dame's merciless dissection of Navy on Saturday showed signs of its progress, and gave a glimpse of the team the Irish could become.
"We want a consistency about how we play each and every week," coach Brian Kelly said after the 56-14 rout. "[Saturday] was a great example of the kind of football (we want to play): Everybody together, everybody playing hard for each other. And that's what we expect. We don't want to just do it for four weeks. We want to do it for eight, 10, 12."
The rout followed a dust-up over comments Kelly made about having to "retrain" the players he inherited from Charlie Weis. Some veterans, including star linebacker Manti Te'o, took offense at what they perceived as a slight, and Kelly apologized at a team meeting Friday.
It may sound like much ado about nothing. But when a team is struggling and still getting used to each other, as Kelly and the Irish (5-3) are, even the slightest controversy can cause irreparable damage.
Instead, this game might prove to be a turning point.
"We're going to go from here and finish out these last four, five games," offensive tackle Zack Martin said. "Every team goes through adversity. We worked too hard to let something so small tear us apart."
Notre Dame scored on five of its first six possessions, and its seven rushing touchdowns were a 19-year high. Jonas Gray scored three times and Cierre Wood twice, giving the Irish two running backs with multiple touchdowns for the first time since 2001. The offensive line did not give up a sack, the fourth straight game it has kept opponents from getting to the quarterback.
And a week after managing just 28 yards, Michael Floyd had six receptions for 121 yards, including a 56-yard scoring catch that was his longest in two years. Floyd also scored the first rushing touchdown of his career on a 10-yard lateral.
Defensively, the Irish held Navy to a season-low 229 yards of offense. The 196 yards Navy got on the ground was well below its average of 325 yards - and a huge improvement on the 367 yards the Midshipmen gouged Notre Dame for last year. Navy quarterback Trey Miller will be seeing Te'o in his nightmares the next few weeks after the Irish linebacker's relentless pressure, which resulted in 13 tackles, including half a sack.
"I like the fact that we're physically so far ahead of where we were last year," Kelly said Sunday. "We've controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part, the way you want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. We know where our weaknesses are in terms of turning the ball over. But our strengths are that we've really developed ourselves both offensively and defensively, the lines, and that's a real good foundation moving forward."
That's not to say the Irish have it all figured out.
Turnovers, which have been a problem all year, were an issue again with miscues leading to both Navy scores.
The first came when a risky swing pass turned into a fumble, giving Navy possession on the Irish 27. Six plays later, Gee Gee Greene scored on a 9-yard catch. In what would be Tommy Rees' final series of the day, he threw an interception that gave Navy the ball at the Irish 26. Jarvi Cummings scored two plays later.
"I think it's pretty clear, the consistency week in and week out and taking care of the football and eliminating some of those sloppy mistakes," Kelly said when asked where the Irish need to improve. "If you look at some of the mistakes that we've made, you know, they're all correctable through better coaching, better playing. We know that we can clean those areas up moving forward."
Being the head coach at Notre Dame is different than being the head coach anywhere else, something Kelly was reminded of this week. But his goals are the same as when he took over at Central Michigan and Cincinnati: Build an environment where winning is the norm.
"Notre Dame is different than all the other jobs I've had," Kelly said, "but no challenge is insurmountable."