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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A close game will not be good enough for No. 9 Notre Dame (4-0) tonight. A year ago, while the Irish wanted to upset Ohio State on the road in not only the season opener but also Marcus Freeman’s head-coaching genuine debut, a close loss momentarily provided some forward momentum.

Notre Dame hung with a proven Playoff team with a future No. 2 overall draft pick at quarterback. No one around the Irish program could publicly say the 21-10 loss was encouraging, but the overall buzz after that game took on that tone, to such an extent that suggesting Notre Dame was not a national title contender was met with rebuke.

A competitive loss to No. 6 Ohio State (3-0) tonight would not have the same effect.

“You have a year under your belt,” Freeman said Monday. “It’s not the first game of the year. You’ve been able to develop an identity as a program with these first four games, and so it’s a lot different than it was last year.”

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That difference may seem simple, but it’s a truth. Notre Dame began the season ranked No. 13, 10 spots behind Ohio State, a greater rankings gap than last year’s. That spread may have been bigger than this preseason’s Game of the Year lines expected this to be, but if tonight had been instead played in Week 1, the Irish may be near content with a close loss, one that showed progress from last season, one that did not rule out Playoff contention yet this fall.

But now, after Notre Dame has impressed perhaps more than any program on an interstate electric grid, no one in South Bend will be satisfied with a close loss. Freeman can no longer show merely understandable growth along his coaching learning curve. Modern college football demands acceleration far quicker than that, and through four weeks of this season, the Irish have shown that kind of acceleration.

“You have two good teams and that’s the focus, right?” Freeman said Thursday. “It’s not about where I was or where I went to school or anybody else. It’s about preparing your team to face a really good Ohio State team, and I’m sure on the other hand, Ohio State has the same mentality.”

This is the fourth time in the last six seasons that Notre Dame has hosted a top-10 matchup. As much grief as Brian Kelly took for supposedly losing too many big games — a criticism intentionally overlooking the competitive reality that it is supposed to be hard to beat top-20 teams on the road — the Irish went 11-5 at home against top-20 teams during his tenure, including 2-1 against top-10 foes, perhaps underscoring the natural difficulty for the road team in those moments.

Notre Dame will not be able to gloss up a close loss tonight, not in Freeman’s second season — when Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day and USC head coach Lincoln Riley, then at Oklahoma, both reached their first national championship games — and not at home where the Irish have fared better than acknowledged amid hand-wringing over ticket sales.

TV: NBC will begin coverage from South Bend at 3:00 ET with the College Countdown pregame show before Maryland and Michigan State kick off at 3:30. Anchored by Maria Taylor, College Countdown will look ahead at both that Big Ten tilt and the top-1o primetime event.

Coverage will return to South Bend at 7 ET, with former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown joining the pregame show.

Noah Eagle will provide the game’s play-by-play with Todd Blackledge as his analyst and Kathryn Tappen reporting from the sidelines.

The game will also be streamed on Peacock.

TIME: Expect kickoff to occur a bit after 7:30 ET, just as the sun is setting at Notre Dame.

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