2019 was a very strange year for Notre Dame football. First, almost everyone was wrong about everything. The sure things at quarterback and defensive end were not. Jafar Armstrong was not the latest version of Theo Riddick. The linebackers, viewed by many as the weakest position group on the team, may have been the strongest. The defense was supposed to take a step back after last season, but the points per game allowed from 2018 to 2019 moved all of .5 points in the wrong direction.
Those factors always make for an odd feeling. Essentially nothing went as expected.
Second, the two losses are very tough to take. It leaves Notre Dame without a signature win, something they got the previous two years, and the Michigan debacle is hard to comprehend. That’s the one game that stands out as being entirely unlike the others, in the one game in which that could not happen. It’s a dark cloud over everything, and the season will feel emptier because of that.
But, this season was not without accomplishments. Removing the two games Notre Dame simply could not lose, against New Mexico State and Bowling Green, they won the remaining eight by an average score of 37-19, against opponents with a combined 56-39 record. All games in which Notre Dame was favored, but that doesn’t guarantee anything in college football (right, Texas?).
But, that feeling of dissatisfaction, that emptiness, is actually progress. Three years ago, we wouldn’t have felt this way about three straight double-digit win seasons. But, we do now, which means the program is moving to the next step, the question is whether they’ll get there.
Better Late Than Never For Brian Kelly
There is a faction of fans who feel Notre Dame has peaked under Brian Kelly, and maybe they are right. No matter what Notre Dame’s overall record, there is a certain type of team that he cannot get over the hump against. It’s those teams with distinct talent advantages–Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, and Alabama. To be clear, he’s beaten teams with superior rosters; USC and Michigan come to mind, but they were not the upper echelon of programs at the time. There is a tier of competition he hasn’t gotten over yet. And in the minds of many, it’s taken him way too long to get the program to this place, his tenth season. Not an unfair belief, though not entirely relevant at this point.
The fact is, they are now a perennial double-digit win team, something we’d have gladly taken coming off of the 2000s, but less palatable given the up and down performances of Kelly’s teams in the middle of the decade. But, whatever buttons Kelly pushed following the 2016 season that shook the program, they’ve been the right ones. They no longer lose games they shouldn’t, they’ve dominated USC, they’ve beaten Michigan, they’ve gone to playoffs, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve discovered who they are and what they are trying to be. The program is in a healthy place.
What the program isn’t, though, is where it wants to be. It wants to be where Ohio State is, and Clemson, and Alabama. And in terms of rosters, they really aren’t all that close to those teams. I had a recent conversation with Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley, and I asked him where Notre Dame stood talent-wise during the late ’80s, early ’90s. He said certainly top five, maybe even one or two. Notre Dame is currently 14th in team talent according to 247 sports. Alabama is first, Ohio State is second, Georgia is third, and Clemson is ninth. Clemson, though, is on track to sign one of the best classes of all time. They could eventually end up with four of the top five players overall and 13 in the top 100. People love to compare Kelly now to those Holtz teams, but the talent disparity is so different, it’s an apples and oranges conversation. Notre Dame has to close that talent gap, but there are signs that they can.
2020 And 2021 Offer Recruiting Promise
Notre Dame likely cannot get into the top five of overall rosters, there are just logistical powers that make it close to impossible, but Clemson won titles at the bottom of the top 10, and that’s where Notre Dame wants to be. The current class sits at 11th, though that has more to do with the smaller number they are taking than the quality of the players. They’ve got two five stars committed at the skill positions, and two other top 100 players on offense.
The 2021 class could be the group that shifts the tide completely. It’s currently 1st overall nationally, with six in the top 100 and several other top 100 players Notre Dame is in very good position with, namely 23rd ranked running back Will Shipley.
These are the types of classes Kelly needs for his program to turn the corner and that he’s in position to do so goes along with the renovation of his program overall. He’s mentioned multiple times that he’s finally figured out what the program is and how to sell it. It would then make perfect sense that he’d be more successful on the recruiting trail. He finally believes and knows the product.
The Next Step
Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s coach, and he’s going to be Notre Dame’s coach. Regardless of how long it took him to get to this point, he is here, and they are showing signs of moving the program upward. That may mean some changes to the staff. He made the mistake following 2015 thinking that his program had turned the corner, and they got complacent. He cannot make that mistake again. He needs to evaluate where his team is, where they underachieved, and make the changes he needs to keep things moving up. Those other programs are always changing, always evolving, and Notre Dame has been late to react big picture too many times.
Progress does not mean arrival, but it’s also not nothing. And hollow feelings after ten wins is progress. They just have to take the next step.