For Notre Dame Football, Closing The Gap Not As Hard As Some Think

There has been a lot of talk about the ceiling of the Notre Dame football team since the Cotton Bowl loss to national champion Clemson. “The Irish have hit their ceiling” Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote in his 2019 mini-preview, essentially dismissing them as a title contender with that sentence. (That’s literally what he wrote. “Notre Dame seems to have hit their ceiling.” That’s it, that’s the take.)

This is of course lazy, you ever hear people talk about Stanford in terms of having a ceiling? Of course not. And if folks insist on using the phrase, they could talk about why they feel that way. Notre Dame won’t bend their standards in terms of academic requirements to close the gap with the top teams, and therefore won’t land the type of players necessary to compete. A program like Michigan, who is not good and can’t get over the hump against the top teams they face regular season or otherwise, doesn’t hear about ceilings because folks know they’ll bring in anyone they can get. They are always building, while Notre Dame is stagnant. Again, this is a lazy take, but it could be made clear why it’s being made.

That being said, Notre Dame does need to close the gap, and there are ways to do that which aren’t pie in the sky. In fact, they are happening right now!


This is obviously the biggest thing and I’m going to ignore the elephant in the room for a second and talk about the good news. Notre Dame has been very good at accumulating four star talent the last few seasons, and it has fueled their rise the last two seasons. There are four teams in the country who have more four star players on the roster than the Irish–Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. Not coincidentally, those first three teams are #’s 1, 2, and 3 in the team talent rankings, with LSU 7th. Notre Dame comes in at 10th. Of the 21 recruits signed in the 2019 cycle, 15 are rated as four stars according the 247’s composite rating, and if Notre Dame can land defensive players Isaiah Foskey and/or Asa Turner, it’ll be two more four star players to the haul. Kelly is building a very good base of talent on his team and it has paid off for him. That’s the good news.

The bad news is what everyone already suspects. They don’t have the top flight talent of those other programs. Those top three schools all have double digit five star players, the Irish currently have one. Notre Dame’s opponent in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson, boasted nine, five star players to 36 four stars. Watching the game, it was those five stars that made the difference. And beyond just five stars, the Irish are devoid of many top 100 players overall. Presently, their top line talent is lacking.

Is Notre Dame going to miss out on the elite talent year after year? Many, like Dan Wolken, assume yes, which leads to the “ceiling” talk. But, there is a lot of promise in the 2020 class for Notre Dame. The Irish are strongly linked to at least 10 prospects in the top 100 according to 247, something that was not the case in the last cycle. They already have three committed players just outside the top 100, adding 4-5 players above them would be a strong haul that further brings the team closer to the top in terms of talent.

Staff Continuity

The secret to Clemson’s success has been strong recruiting–although since 2008 they’ve only signed three top 10 classes–and the continuity of the staff. They don’t see turnover at the top, with their coordinators staying in tact, along with head coach Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame had a scare this week with offensive coordinator Chip Long interviewing with Alabama, but he has elected to stay with the Irish program. After going 22-4 since the arrival of Long and defensive coordinator Clark Lea, keeping those two around was vitally important. They are two bright, young coaches who can grow with the program and build it to fit what they are doing, and what they are doing is very successful.

Talent Retention

This one is more important to Notre Dame than the other top schools, because they don’t turn over talent the way the Clemson’s of the world do. The thing with building through four star talent is it’s more likely those players need a year to develop before being counted on to win. Where is Notre Dame if McGlinchey and Nelson move on after 2016? Or if Tillery, Coney, and Tranquill opt for the NFL after 2017?

Notre Dame was dealt a blow in 2017 when it lost Josh Adams, and Equanimeous St. Brown to the NFL, plus the losses of receiver Kevin Stepherson and running backs CJ Holmes and Deon McIntosh. Talent retention isn’t simply losing players to the NFL after all. But, the core of their team stayed intact, and it obviously brought a great season.

Julian Love forgoing his senior year hurts, but the returns of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem were paramount, and Notre Dame had to have them. Losing all three would have been something close to a death blow to their 2019 prospects.

Notre Dame is right there as a top five team, evidence suggests they should stay in that range, and are a strong class away from reaching the top tier of college programs. Of course, that strong class has to come and it will be a challenge for the staff. Luckily, a strong class is not the main ingredient, but the final touches on a cake Notre Dame has been putting together for two plus years.

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  1. The other 3 playoff teams had elite QBs who could score suddenly from anywhere. Ian Book seems to be a very good but not elite QB who nearly always needs several plays to go well to score. That is the ‘ceiling’. We have a QB on the roster with elite potential – Phil Jurkovec. Playing him may cause some bumps in 2019 but that year of growth should make him even better and allow our team to reach for ‘elite’ in 2020 and 2021. Nobody that good stays for 5 years (2022) so let’s start now. Go Irish!

  2. I hope Kelly hires a running backs coach soon. He needs to hit a homerun and bring in a coach who is both a great recruiter as well as a great on the field coach.Also I don’t understand whyNotredames oline isn’t more consistent ly dominate.Every year are oline recruiting is rated amongst the best in the country and we have too many games where notredame does not run the ball very well at all. I’m not sure what the problem is coaching scheme playcalling.I don’t believe it’s the talent. Eichenberg and Kramer were the top 2 lineman coming out of Ohio. Kramer was a 5 star. Urban Meyer was all over both of them. Hainsey was a 4 star with a lot of big offer.s Mustipher was on a lot of preseason all American lists.etc

  3. Another point i don’t see much discussion on is the number of recruits brought in every year. Alabama and Clemson
    routinely average 25-26 new recruits. ND normally tops out at 21-22. This adds up to DEPTH at every level. Clemson
    didn’t miss Dexter Lawrence one bit. The next guy steps up. ND loses Love and the whole secondary crashes down.
    This has to get fixed somehow. Especially trying to get to the elite level. The other is the vertical passing game.
    Throwing the ball 25-30 yds downfield and having the receiver catch in stride. Hitting the seam in the middle of the field.
    ND can’t be throwing to the sidelines and creating jump balls and balls going out of bounds. Need more yards after the catch.

      1. Or maybe Alabama and Clemson have fewer guys stay four years and even fewer who stay five years than Notre Dame does. Perhaps Greg or Frank could get data to confirm that if it’s true. I mean to say that maybe BAMA and Clemson have more slots to fill than ND, due to more guys leaving early.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  4. It is interesting to note how the “ceiling” for BK has shifted from the Belch Bowl to 9-4 or 10-3 to 12-1! (Actually, 12-1 is a pretty high “ceiling” in itself if you think about it. I mean, how many teams this year did better than that?)
    Now 12-1 might actually be right for BK – he’s hit it twice…but he has 3 more years (currently trending and recruiting well) to significantly better that record the only possible way you could…at 14-0!
    These so called “ceilings” (I never liked that term, BTW) are being set for BK by guys whose ceilings and floors are identical…not “has beens”…more like a bunch of “never wasses”.
    The ceiling BK sets for himself is an undefeated NC season within the confining guidelines set by the University of Notre Dame du Lac. It doesn’t get any higher than that guys. I hope he makes it.

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Until we can at least make a decent game out of a top tier opponent and not get blown out on a cosistent basis, people should not be using that Kelly going 12-0 or 11-1 as something that is spectacular. What is Kelly’s biggest win or signature game? Some could say it was the 2017 loss to GA because we had a chance to win the game on the last drive against the team that almost won the NC. Playing like that against a really good team shows you belong. Other than that, any real big game we have our butts handed to us.

      1. We did OK at Oklahoma against Coach Stoops, if I remember right. But it’s always a moving target with ND…if we lose to Michigan, we suck. If we beat Michigan, they are not “top tier”. Same with USC, Texas, Oklahoma…and even a couple of “decent” games against Clemson in 2015 and Georgia in 2017. I don’t see how losing by one or two points is “having our butts handed to us”…but our performance in the NC game against BAMA was pitiful – likewise our offensive “performance”
        against Clemson this year was disgraceful. Those are two games where we actually did get our butts handed to us. I can’t think of too many others though.

        BGC ’77 ’82

      2. BCG,

        Ohio State a few years ago smoked us. Miami ended up being the biggest game of the season last year considering we were right in the hunt of the playoff and we got destroyed. Sure, some of the “bigger” games such as Michigan this year or Oklahoma that you mentioned from 2012 or USC last year were nice wins and we played well but we later find out that they weren’t as good as we thought based on the rest of their results throughout the year. GA this year will be Kelly’s next test. Michigan is slow and never have a good qb. I don’t even consider this a big game. We SHOULD beat Michigan. GA though…they are recruiting at a high level and have been at the top the last two years. If we win at GA, this will be Kelly’s biggest win by far.

    2. RIGHT B G C !! These guys just need 1 loss to whine and complain about BK, I’M sure they could all do a better job! Unfortunately there true lack of knowledge when it comes to team speed, depth and talent ( which ND is almost there ) prevents them from seeing the GREAT job that’s being done!! To think ND’S talent level is at the same point as CLEMSON’S is absurd, but according to these posters we should have won the game!!

      1. NDCM,

        Did you see my post below about the teams that played Clemson this year that put up as many points as ND? Are you saying that those teams have better players on their roster than ND? Didn’t think so…

        So how did these teams put up more points than ND with lesser talented players? At what point are you going to realize that it IS the coaching and not the players? I’m no Urban Meyer fan but he was beating top teams consistently while at Utah. Chris Peterson was beating top teams while at Boise State. Why? Because they are great coaches and maximize the talent they have. You cannot tell me that our coaches maximize our players talent. Many posters on here talk about how Kelly has ruined every QB to come through here in some fashion and they never play to their best ability. Hmm..maybe trying to make Wimbush a pocket passer in the Ball State game where he couldn’t run the entire first half wasn’t such a good idea. Is that maximizing Brandon Wimbush’s talent?

        I mean c’mon NDCM, get real for a change

      2. I saw that BAMA only managed to put up 16 pts against CLEMSON, and none in the second half and they have much more talent than ND!!! Maybe they should get a better coach than SABAN!!! Did you see that CLEMSON HAD OVER A MONTH to prepare for ND!!! Wimbush was QB in 17 when ND won the award for best O-LINE in the country, yet what did MIAMI, STANFORD and GEORGIA do? PUT 8 MEN IN THE BOX and Wimbush couldn’t run anymore, the same thing MICH., BALL ST. and VANDY did!! Once he couldn’t run the offense was DONE because he couldn’t pass!! SAW the teams on your list we beat 3 of them, SYRACUSE scored 26 on CLEMSON yet only 7 on us! Every game is different, get a clue you think CLEMSON prepped for those teams more than they did for ND? YET for a second straight year SABAN tried to lure CHIP LONG to BAMA!! But you know better.

      3. NDCM,

        Furman scored more points against Clemson than ND and Clemson had the entire offseason to prepare for Furman, LOLOLOL!!! This makes your point about preparation pointless.

        Michigan also stacked the box against Wimbush and I’m pretty sure Wimbush was throwing over the top to Finke for TDs, throwing deep crosses to Claypool for large gains, even hitting Alize Mack on wheel routes for large gains as well. He also had designed runs called and picked up key 1st downs with his legs. Chip Long actually called a very good game for Wimbush against Michigan and let the kid do what he does and he was pretty successful in doing it. Wimbush was then made into a pocket passer against Ball State the next week. Why? BAD COACHING!!

        You’re username fits perfectly if you don’t see that. CrazyMike, LOL!

      4. YOUR just to dumb to realize they had to replace Wimbush he was a horrible passer they tried everything with him!! His bomb to Finke in MICH. game was a jump ball FINKE came down with!! CLEMSON beat LOUISVILLE 73-16 but you wanna credit LOUISVILLE for scoring 16 , dumb! Did the 7 pts Furman scored make that a close game? LOOK at the dislikes you have on your comments, everybodys wrong but you, I saw your comments during games this year, you obviously never coached a day in your life!! IM sure CHIP LONG will be thrilled to hear you said he called a good game!! LOL!!!!

      5. NDCM,

        Couple points…one, you don’t have to have formal coaching to offer well thought out suggestions on what could be done better by our coaches. My dream job would be to be a receivers/offensive analysis coach for ND. But I’m getting older, have a good job now, and can’t start over with my family situation as I must provide for them. So helping out with our local high school team is probably as far as I’ll ever get.

        Two, it’s funny how you think the “like” and “dislike” buttons are all telling of what everyone thinks, haha! Hmm, let me get on every single mobile device I own that has it’s own unique IP address and start hitting the dislike button and then use that against who I am arguing with as ammo, LOL!! That’ll show em! There are plenty of people on here who have agreed with me as well as disagreed. It makes no difference to me how many likes or dislikes I get. I feel like I provide good thoughts and analysis with possible solutions on what I see. People can agree or disagree, it’s all good either way.

        Last point, according to you, Alabama is better than ND talent wise. They scored 16 points against Clemson which is more than ND. This makes sense right? Agreed? But you also agree that ND has better talent than Furman right? Yet Furman scored more points against Clemson. Both games were blowouts. So tell me how if Furman has less talent than ND, how they were able to score more points against them? Alabama makes sense per your point. How does the Furman situation make sense then considering your point about Alabama having more talent than ND?

    3. Chris J,
      Yes, Ohio State killed us in a NY 6 Bowl. But that one gets filed with BAMA 2012 and Clemson 2018…post season against a top tier team…our last hurdle at ND. Miami works though…we got buried by a team that probably practiced a little for us all year, and caught us in November. A rivalry game, too. I’m not arguing that there has been no bad games, or even seasons…look at 2016! But I am saying that there have been good showings too, Anyway, it doesn’t matter…BK clearly will be here three more years. I have him at 10-2 or 9-3 next year, with an unknown Bowl Opponent of some sort…but I see us winning the NC in 2020. Have for a long while.

      BGC ’77 ’82

  5. There is no “ceiling”. The competitive model has become a hierarchical pyramid. And nearest to the top, the sides have gotten steeper, the space smaller. Meaning fewer and fewer teams now occupy the rarefied air at the top.
    Those teams are easy to name, and they have made the commitment to dedicate obscene amounts money in an arms race to get there. It brings in the best players, and it’s the ante to have a realistic shot at a championship.

    ND is simply not one of them. Lots of very good teams are in the same boat…that’s just how it is.

      1. Ronda, even for you this must be getting old. Another 6,8 times, max.
        Then what?
        Ever consider a football related post? Might work.

    1. I agree with David on this one. These are two-horse races…period. But this isn’t new! To give an example: Once upon a time, all the top blue chip basketball recruits wanted to go to Los Angeles and play for Coach Wooden. There was UCLA and nobody else…the pinnacle. I’d give a few examples from college football, but some of you thin skins out there might be offended that I left your favorite streak, or dynasty out.

      BGC ’77 ’82

      1. But there was no similar money explosion related to the Wooden basketball period that changed how universities operated. He was just a ruthless recruiter who got any kid he wanted.
        The money for winning in college football today…tax-free….is simply obscene. The tail wags the dog.

      2. David, There was a money explosion at that time, but it was in the pros mostly. That needed to come first.
        However, Notre Dame ended its bowl absence right in the middle of that era David – and why? ANSWER: For the (then) amazing sum of $1,000,000 dollars (all to ND) for appearing in the Cotton Bowl. Don’t even try to tell us there was no money explosion then: That is wrong. It just had not gotten to the obscene levels of Texas, Texas A&M and a few others today. Note the prominence of the State of Texas here…no different than the Savings and Loan era, nor that state’s “exposure” to the banking crisis in 2008. Some states (and districts) always lead the way in the “obscene” pursuit of money category…New York, Texas, and D.C. come to my mind. Indiana has never been one of those.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  6. I do think coaching plays a part in this. What percent I don’t know.I thought this year Notredames defense was championship level with some great players Coney Tranquel Love Tillery etc. The biggest problem is not landing enough playmakers and an elite quarterback.Also I would like to see Kelly make a big time hire as an offensive coordinator and give him total control.Dont agree with the high standards excuse. How did Weis bring in Clausen Eifert Floyd Tate Rudolph etc. Also Charlie developed Quinn into a great college qb.How did he do it?

  7. We have top 10 recruiting classes on a regular basis. We produce players that are getting drafted every single year, sometimes multiple first rounders, who are having success in the NFL as well.

    It’s not the players. Its the COACHING!!! This is the true gap that is keeping ND from getting to that next level. For us to only score 3 points and then on top of that the closest we got was like the 35 yard line or whatever…that’s an embarrassment on the coaches part. Don’t blame the players for that. They were not put in good positions to be successful which is 100% the truth.

    Here are the teams that played against Clemson that scored as much or more as ND this year:

    Furman – 7 (who!?!? and are you f’n kidding me an FCS team!?)
    Texas A&M – 26
    Georgia Southern – 7 (again, who!?)
    GTECH – 21
    Syracuse – 23
    Wake Forest – 3
    NC State – 7
    FSU – 10
    Louisville – 16
    Boston College – 7
    Duke – 6
    South Carolina – 35
    PITT – 10
    Alabama – 16

    Notice something? Yes, every single team that Clemson played is on this list because they scored as many points as ND against them. Other than Alabama, ND’s recruiting classes have been better than every team on this list the last few years. What does that say about our coaches? They simply aren’t getting the job done. I don’t know what other “facts” to use here but I’m sure more could be pulled to show that it isn’t our players.

    1. My Top 3 areas of improvement for closing the GAP on the top teams out there such as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and

      a few others.

      1. TOP TIER QB. This is an absolute MUST HAVE and Notre Dame has failed here under Kelly

      2. Better Coaching. Kelly has done well if you just look at wins and losses. When you look at how he has done in the BIG

      Games BK has failed miserably. Look at his assistants over the years. How many have become successful head

      coaches elsewhere?

      3. Recruiting. How many of the TOP 100 ranked high school players can get in at Notre Dame? 50 out of 100? 70? I don’t

      know the answer but im guessing its not in the 90s or even close to that. Lower requirements are needed to close the


  8. “Lazy” is the perfect adjective to apply to sports writers like Dan Wolken. Like far too many who work in the toy department, he takes his cues from the morons at ESPN. These folks just don”t realize how ESPN keeps priming the mine by bashing everyone except their pet monkey, Alabama, and their pet conference. Most people know ESPN has lost most of its quality writers over the past few years, but there are still a few out there who think they’re relevant. They pulled the same crap when the Big 10 signed the TV deal with Fox; they went on a campaign to disparage the Big 10 to make their own pets look better. It’s just what they do. It’s why they’re losing tens of millions of viewers every year. I posted something on one of these boards before Clemson played Alabammy that predicted Clemson would beat them like a broke dick dog… and they did. I also said that if they did, they’d still be crying that the Irish didn’t belong in the playoffs. It’s just plain stupid. The top two teams in the SEC don’t play but one or two tough teams all year (each other) and they also schedule a school that isn’t D1… but somehow their schedule is “superior” to ND’s? This is really low-IQ stuff. Just ESPN being irrelevant and a few sports writers still drinking their Kool-Aid. The final poll should have been Clemson #1, ND #2, but they got that totally wrong as well. Some things just never change…

    1. Les,

      I agree with almost everything you’ve stated here. You’re absolutely right that ND deserved to be there based on their regular season outcome. The only part I disagree with you on is the rankings. The final rankings before postsesason should have been Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson as your 1, 2, 3. Clemson’s schedule was a real joke this year as the ACC was extremely down. To play a 5 loss PITT team in the championship was garbage. The SEC is still a tough schedule to run even though I agree with you about the ESPN bias. And the fact that Bama went undefeated and were winning the way they were, it’s hard to argue them not being #1 all year. But ND certainly deserved to be #2 based on the schedule and quality of wins. However, it seems the committee is looking at how bad you destroy teams, even if they are garbage, as one of their criteria. Clemson certainly was doing this the majority of their games where ND barely beat teams they should have destroyed. It really does make a difference and Kelly needs to start understanding this and begin building a killer mentality going forward so we start whooping up on people by 40+.

    2. Yeah, I get aggravated at all the schedule toughness talk myself. I get so sick of hearing, ND plays Navy every year. From fans of teams that play Chattanooga State and Louisiana Tech.

      Frankly in the SEC, once you get past Alabama, Georgia and LSU, they are an average conference. All the Georgia fans taunting ND saying they should have been in the playoff—-WHY? You lost every game that could have been a statement. LSU, lost badly that game. Then they lost to Alabama—then my favorite, when they lost their bowl game which should have shut them up right there. I’d hardly call the remainder of Georgia’s schedule daunting.

      And yes, Clemson too didn’t have a particularly daunting schedule. Now maybe the Irish didn’t have the toughest schedule, but I’d argue it’s tougher then the at least 2 other teams in the playoff.

  9. I think are recruiting is finally on the upswing. Four stars will make us solidly in the top 10 year after year but to get to the top we need a few 5 stars or difference makers at skill positions. If we had Will Fuller who was underrated as a high 3 low 4, we could pull off the upset and beat a top ranked team. Book is a very good QB and I feel very confident with him for keeping us as a contender. It would be nice to somehow get a DeShaun Watson or a Trevor Lawrence but at this point if we stay consistent, we have a shot, about 1 in 4 of beating an Alabama, Clemson or Georgia.

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