Year Seven A Fork In The Road For Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly - Notre Dame Head Coach
Photo: RVR Photos // USA TODAY Sports

It’s about the time of year that Notre Dame fans start to ask themselves the same question: what do you expect from the team this year? It’s fair to say the win-loss expectations are tempered, responses will probably arrive in the range of a pre-season top 15 ranking and a 9 or 10 win season.

In a vacuum, those expectations seem warranted.  The Irish lost three, first round picks (I’m counting Jaylon Smith as a first rounder because, well, he is), their three best players on the Irish defense, four captains from the defense and the most explosive offensive threat since Golden Tate and Rocket Ismail.

In total, seven players were taken in the first four rounds of the NFL  draft from the 2015 squad. That team finished 10-3. It would be hard to make a big case for an 11 win season given those facts. But, it’s year seven. If Kelly is to turn Notre Dame into a consistent football power there is no time like the present.

Let’s be clear, Kelly has done well to even give himself the opportunity to make this turn into national dominance for the Notre Dame football program. His tenure in South Bend followed a similar trajectory of all the great coaches who came through the program, highlighted by going undefeated in the regular season of year three–with a team who had no business earning such a distinction–and it looked like Notre Dame had permanently arrived on the scene, as promised.

What followed was a series of events that a reasonable person couldn’t predict or even prepare for: losing his starting quarterback to suspension, five key players getting suspended two weeks before the season, an incredibly bad run of injuries to key players and players leaving early who frankly had no business doing so. The fact that he scraped out a 17-9 record with two bowl wins in 2013 and 2014–amidst all the chaos–gave him the chance to have the bounce back 10 win season in 2015.

But, all that really proves is that Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. Good coaches SHOULD be able overcome those kinds of obstacles and they should take a bad situation and make it into a good outcome. Heck, he did it even in 2015 when he was down to his third string quarterback in the third quarter of the second game.

Kelly can coach, that is no longer the question.

Can Brian Kelly win a national championship at Notre Dame?

That is what remains now. All the bad stuff from 2013 and 2014–the terrible quarterback play, the suspensions–is all gone now and he proved that with what we saw in 2015. That team made a real playoff run, but it proved three times over that is was not of the caliber of the elite teams in college football, which is fine. It really is.

Given the disaster of the previous two seasons, 2015 was essentially Kelly’s second year three, he for all intents and purposes took over a new program in 2013. Consequently, it’s time to make that move up as a program. He has three quarterbacks who can win games for them, there is no turmoil this off-season (knock on, nay, pound on wood) and they are coming off a strong 2015 campaign. Eleven wins should be the expectation, anything less is spinning their wheels.

There are lots of reasons for things to go bad in a season. Key players get hurt, the team gets off to slow starts, they don’t play well at night on the road, poor play in the red zone, too many mistakes on defense, etc. They are all valid and, again in a vacuum, understandable. Injuries severely hamper teams, other schools are very fired up to play Notre Dame in primetime, the team is young, and on and on. At some point there needs to be more reasons that things go right than things that go wrong. The goal is to be the best, not better than what the circumstances called for.

The biggest point in all of this is the results on the field are the final step in the building of Kelly’s program at Notre Dame. He has recruited like gang busters–as of this writing Notre Dame has 16 commits and is in the top 10 of every national service, #2 on Scout and #4 on 247. He is churning out first and second round picks on the offensive line and skill positions almost on a yearly basis, and he’s got an offensive staff that matches any staff in the country. He’s made considerable improvements to non-coaching staff, assigning football analyst roles to respected former coaches around the country. Under his watch improvements in nutrition and the football facilities have been tremendous; he has been the figurehead for those changes being implemented.

Most importantly, Brian Kelly seems to get the bigger picture for what it means to be the Notre Dame coach and a Notre Dame player. He always sold the program as a different kind of place, “we shop from a different aisle” is his famous quote. That mindset has shown itself in his recruiting efforts.

In the last two recruiting cycles, Notre Dame has only had two players decommit, both in 2014, and both due to academic reasons. When his players decided on Notre Dame, they were sure. He also added two high profile, highly successful former players to the football staff, Autry Denson and Todd Lyght. Who can sell what the Notre Dame experience can do for you better than these two guys? Were there more qualified candidates for the jobs? Of course, neither had been in coaching over a few years. But, were there better candidates for the posts at Notre Dame? Doubtful. Again, Kelly gets it.

Notre Dame is in an extremely healthy place right now as far as the direction of the program, the branding of the program with the Under Armour deal and their state of the art social media platform (if you think this doesn’t matter then you don’t know teenagers very well) and the improvements to the football facilities with the new stadium project. It’s all right there, waiting for the Irish to make their ascent to the top of the sport.

But, what does that all mean if Kelly and his team drop the opener at Texas? What does it mean if they can’t figure out short yardage, or they continue to give up big plays on defense? What does it mean if they come up just short against the elite teams again? Then the Irish are again just an also ran, a scrappy little team that doesn’t deserve a place at the big boy table.

What is 2016 to be for Brian Kelly? Is it the year that they finally get out of their own way and cement themselves as an elite program? Or will they once again find another set of reasons that it just wasn’t to be? If it can be the former we can be seeing the start of the next golden age of Notre Dame football.

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  1. James,

    I agree, BK has yet to prove he is elite. I think the potential is there but yes, he has to get the team over the hump. The D/W/W years did a lot of damage to the ND brand, more than I even realized. I think even BK’s naysayers would agree he is a step up from that. I don’t think he plans on going anywhere in the near future. I think he wants to be the coach that brings back a NC to ND and I don’t believe he will be satisfied until he’s done that.

    I know many, probably all ND fans in fact, want a NC now. We don’t want to wait any longer. The facts and predictions say it’s highly unlikely this year because of all the players we lost. But we all know, we don’t care about facts and predictions. We all want it this year. But as long as I see year to year improvement I’m not ready to bale on BK. I still think he has it in him to help bring the NC to South Bend. We are on the cusp of having an elite team, I can feel it. I believe we have a team that can consistently win 10 games a year, we just have one more step to take.

  2. The Irish are playing the best football in the last three years. It is tough to go against The Stanford and USC teams, they will lose to them again and maybe get to 10-2

  3. It is year 7. Time for consistent double digit wins, single loss seasons. With the every 2 or 3 year undefeated season thrown in. This is what an ELITE coach does. Until we see these results Kelly is a great coach but not elite.

    Furthermore, the worst case scenario must be a 10-2 type regular season. 8-5 should never happen.

    I’ll concede the AL and OH State type losses, on occasion, but other than loading to a juggernaut we should be all “W’s”. Yeah programs like Pitt and BC are tough and play up to our level, but we have to win those.

    I love the job Kelly is doing, especially after the Davie, Willingham, Weiss abyss. He seems to be a good man and hope he takes the next step.

    Go Irish!

  4. Athenaeum Joe,

    You make great points. Some times some fans get so wrapped up in the history of the Irish that they forget CFB is a vastly different place than it was even in the 1990’s.

    I think BK and Swarbick have done a great job of trying to bring ND into the 21st century, but respecting the history of the program too. That is not an easy thing to do. The elite recruits ND needs to play at a high level are not going to come to a school that is stuck in the past. At the same time, there is something special about playing on a field that still has a classic retro feel to it (i.e. slashes in the end zones instead of the school name).

    I do agree, for BK to be considered an elite coach, a NC is a must. But they are trending in the right direction. The staff is doing all the right things, building a rock solid foundation. We are now recruiting elite talent year in and year out, and having numerous players be drafted into the NFL will continue that trend. Now they just need to get over that hump.

    I also agree this is probably a make or break year for BVG and his defense. They need to show improvement over last year. I’m not expecting an elite level defense like 2012. Just enough of a defense that if the offense does it’s job that we win games. I do like BVG’s intensity. It’s good to have a mix of different styles on the sideline and his is the greater intensity. But there does have to be more.

    A 10-2 year is within reach, and I actually think if the team plays to it’s potential, it can be more. But we’ll know better what kind of year to expect when they finally hit the field against Texas.

  5. This is a different day and age from Leahy, Parsegian, or Holtz. It used to be there were Catholic High Schools all over the country where most of the players wanted to be Irish and they could recruit from the best and take their pick of the best in the country. Now that isn’t so and they are dealing with teenagers who only think about getting in the NFL and making big money for the most part. Most of the time in the past also they didn’t have to be so concerned about academics for the stars but they do today. All in all though, I think Kelly and staff are doing a fantastic job.

  6. Coach Kelly and the University of Notre Dame football team will have to do better than 2015. 12-0 or 11-1. That’s it. We all like the way the program is going—-but in the end 10-2 just won’t do it. Will I accept a 10-2 season ? Again. No way. And neither should any of us as ND devout fans. It’s a tough schedule ahead as usual —but essential to beat Michigan State , Stanford , USC. These are the teams to beat to get in play for Final Four. Beat these 3 teams — and Irish could be in contention for National Championship.

  7. I see a 10 win season. There’s a possibility for more, but that’s how I see it. The concerns I have are:

    -Defense. The offense played well enough to go undefeated last year. The defense was overmatched against the elite teams. This has got to be a make-or-break year for BVG. No more missed assignments, players out of position, giving up big plays, lack of a pass rush and an inability to get the offense to turn the ball over.

    -QB position. Eventually, there’s going to be turmoil here. If ND gets lucky, it won’t occur until after this year. However, IMO, it’ll eventually happen. One of the 3 will transfer depending on how the playing time works itself out or if there are injuries.

    This can also be a great year, namely, because of the offense. The O-Line is as talented and deep as any ND team ever. There is some serious talent at RB and they are explosive as well. WR lacks a true stud but there is a lot of depth and it’s not a stretch to see one or more emerge as a star. And, ND has 3 QB’s that are top-notch and good enough to be starters at nearly every program out there. If BK can somehow keep them all content and healthy, there should be a heckuva lot of production at QB this year.

  8. DON’T FORGET – We NotaDame fans musn’t forget that a key part of being a Champion has to do with Luck. The year-3, 10-0 team was lucky. Then they met Alabama, a superior team. Luck runs out. Or how about BC in ’92/’93? BC had no business even as guests in Rock’s house. Yet they beat us because they were Lucky.

    So how do you manage Luck? Attend to the prayer of Serenity. “Lord, help me master what I can, let-go of what I can’t, and help me know the difference.”

    Remember – “Be good,” and Luck is more likely to be your friend/ally. GO IRISH!

  9. It is very simple. We had a quarterback last year, Zaire, who would have enabled us to go undefeated in the regular season. Whether he could have beaten Alabama would have been questionable, based on the logic that Watson is the only QB in the nation better than Zaire and he could not quite do it. This year we are a little greener but very capable if we avoid injuries. Once again with Zaire I would expect to win every regular season game. Kizer, despite his experience, struggled with turnovers and was lucky on one in particular being eliminated because of penalty and several other fumbles and interceptions being recovered or dropped respectively. Zaire has no turnovers in 3 games, one in which he beat a favored team and was named MVP. If Kelly has the guts to do what he knows is right, start Zaire, we will not be disappointed and will definitely be in the playoffs.

  10. same question, different year. LOL. there is no question that bk is a high-level middling coach. the only real opportunity to showcase nd was a blowout to alabama in the nc game some years back. then, earlier this year i was in peoria to witness first-hand, osu pummel the irish. anything is possible. what is more likely, is a season of hope diminished by a couple of lackluster performances blamed on weather, officiating, or key injuries.

    so much hope. too much futility.

    go irish!

  11. Brian Kelly has dramatically improved the talent level at ND. He has built this program the way that great coaches do. Last season, we saw an amazing team that kept fighting back after losing a number of frontline players each week. ND is back!

  12. Great article!

    A follow up point I would like to make is on your comments about the last few seasons. I am relatively new to this site but I can’t help but notice that there seems to be a lot of “No excuses, just go out and win championships” mentality. That’s great and all but I feel that its not how football works. Certain situations can be detrimental to a football team (See the key suspensions in 2013, rash of injuries in 2014-2015) and the fact that Brian Kelly guided the team to a 27-12 record over those three years speaks volumes. Imagine what Weis would have accomplished! The last season that went off without a hitch was 2012 and look how that turned out.

    I am looking forward to a great season. Although we lost a lot of talent I think this will be one of Kelly’s best teams.

    10-3 with a loss in the bowl game = Disappointing season
    11-2 with a win in the bowl game = Great season with great momentum heading into 2017

    Go Irish!

  13. At ND – NC is always on our minds – that’s a given.

    Unless/until he coaches the team to a National Championship Kelly cannot be ranked among the GREAT ND coaches. Fair? Probably not, but them’s the facts, and Kelly was well aware of that before he signed on the dotted line.

  14. Best article I have ever read on this site! Perfect articulation of what is on all ND fans’ minds! Every game is winnable and every game can be lost, even Army if we are not prepared.

  15. With all that potential NFL talent and leadership gone, while there last year, ND won 10 games, only the second time in BKs six years that a ND team under him achieved double-digit wins.
    Now if the “next-man-in” success is to be duplicated or even improved upon (this time due to replacing many key graduation and early-departures instead of key injuries), either 1) ‘the next-man-in’ maybe should have already been playing, (i.e. Nyles Morgan, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, and who knows who else) or 2) the staff did a great job in preparing and developing the back-ups to get to 10 wins. If 1) is the case, then those who will now be starting aren’t necessarily better than those not playing, which is the coach’s call. If 2) is true, then we should see 11 wins (or more), as that development would then continue under the coaching in place. Granted, the # of wins is not always a reflection on the coaching staff. Stuff happens. But if not now, when? Was 2012 an aberration, or a foretelling of what will be?

    So I agree with Greg who finished his post on an optimistic note, and Nemesis, that the # of wins by end of this season will better determine whether BK is a ‘great’ enough coach to return ND regularly to the elite, where they belong. For elite teams shouldn’t have to explain away three losses because they don’t lose three if they are elite.

  16. The time to start winning more games and especially those games defined as “meaningful ” games has to start this year. At least 11-2 or better or otherwise, Kelly doesn’t get this team over the hump to a NC. No more excuses, time to put the better recruitment, improved coaching, and facility improvements to having a higher achievement on the field regarding performance & outcomes.

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