The story of Notre Dame football goes back over 130 years. Through much of that time, Notre Dame was the most celebrated and successful football program in the country. The last such era ended in the mid ’90s when Lou Holtz resigned. Thus began 20 years of wandering in the wilderness. Coaches came, and coaches went. First Davie, then Willingham, and then Weis.
Then came Brian Kelly…the one who was supposed to be different than his most recent predecessors. However, the first five years of Kelly’s tenure were filled with ups and downs, missteps, and mistakes. Yes, the Irish made the National Championship game in 2012. But the team was so visibly weaker, less athletic, and less talented than Alabama that it was clear Notre Dame was not close to being an elite national power. The next three years included only one 10-win season, and Notre Dame would never finish the season ranked higher than 12th in the coach’s poll. In one season, they were not ranked at all. It was mediocrity at best.
Then came 2016. The lowlights of this 4-8 season include losing three games to teams that were not even bowl eligible, losing three games when holding double-digit leads, passing 31 times in a hurricane (yes, that is a literal statement…Notre Dame actually did that) and the mid-season firing which ended the disastrous tenure of Brian VanGorder. It seemed as if the decades of wandering in the wilderness would never end. It seemed as if, perhaps, Notre Dame wasn’t capable of being an elite college football program any longer.
Then something changed…Brian Kelly changed. Gone were cronyism coordinators. Gone was his long-time friend and strength and conditioning program coach. Gone was the micromanaging of the offensive side of the ball. Gone was trying to be something Notre Dame was not. Instead, Kelly went out and found the very best coordinators he could find. He vowed to improve recruiting and was given another chance to rebuild the Notre Dame program into what was hoped would have been built five years earlier when he began.
With these changes, it has become apparent over time that Brian Kelly was not only an excellent coach (because, after all, you do not get to where Brian Kelly has gotten in the manner in which he got there without being an excellent football coach), but that he had learned through his mistakes how to run a program as vast and complex as the Notre Dame football program at a very high level.
The start of the ascent back to football relevance was 2017. Notre Dame won 10 games…the tenth coming in the Citrus Bowl over the LSU Tigers via a 55-yard touchdown reception from youngster Ian Book (who replaced Brandon Wimbush) with 1:28 remaining in the game. Then the 2018 season would result in an undefeated regular season and a trip to the College Football Playoffs as the #4 seed. The 2019 season resulted in another 10-win season, and 2020 gave Notre Dame another trip back to the College Football Playoffs.
44 wins in four years and two trips to the College Football Playoffs in the last three years has Notre Dame at the highest level of the second tier…the tier just below Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson. Recruiting has also seen a significant uptick with the increased wins and College Football Playoff appearances for Notre Dame. The 2022 recruiting class is currently ranked as the #1 class in the country and should certainly finish in the top ten, if not top five. The Notre Dame rosters of the future look like they are very nicely stocked with talent, which, along with Matt Balis’ excellent strength and conditioning program, should lend itself to teams that can compete at the highest level. But those are the rosters and teams of the future…not the team of today.
This brings us to the significance of this season. You see, the teams in that highest and most selective tier that Notre Dame seeks to join do not take years off. Clemson, Ohio State, or Alabama do not have 8 or 9-win seasons. Ohio State has not won less than 11 games since 2012. Clemson has not lost less than 10 games since 2011. Alabama has not won less than 10 games since 2008 and has won more than 10 games in all but one of those seasons. Teams in the highest tier do not take years off. Teams in the highest tier are always relevant to the national title discussion.
Notre Dame ended its 2020 season with many obstacles to maintaining its relevance with the elite in 2021. To replace all-time Notre Dame wins-leader and 2-time College Football Playoff quarterback Ian Book, Notre Dame’s choices included a sophomore with a recently destroyed knee, a true freshman, and a high school senior with only one year of high school playing experience who hadn’t played football in over a year. This stood in stark contrast to the options available to Ohio State (CJ Stroud), Clemson ( D.J. Uiagalelie), and Alabama (Bryce Young). These quarterbacks were ranked as the #3, #1, and #1 QBs and the #51, #2, and #3 overall recruits in their class.
Additionally, the offensive line would need to replace four of its five members, where the lone returning member missed the end of the 2020 season with a serious foot fracture and would need to miss all spring as well. The wide receiver corps returned only a single player with any significant production in 2020…slot receiver Avery Davis and questions surrounded oft-injured Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin’s health. The defensive secondary, a relative weakness to what has become an excellent unit, had serious questions as well.
Enter quarterback Jack Coan, Wisconsin transfer, who started 18 games, including a Big Ten Championship game and a Rose Bowl. Enter Cain Madden, Marshall transfer, and All-American right guard. Enter Blake Fisher, 5-star phenom at left tackle. Enter fully healthy Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin, who repeatedly impressed throughout the spring and fall. Enter Cam Hart and a strengthened defensive backfield including Houston Griffith…a former 4-star safety who put his name in the transfer portal before being re-recruited into the program.
Will it be enough to win 10 games? 11 games? 12 games? Is it enough to put Notre Dame in serious consideration for another trip to the College Football Playoff? Notre Dame is currently favored to win every game on its schedule…although only slightly in some. The schedule also includes a tough five-game stretch of Wisconsin, Cincinnati, @Virginia Tech, USC, and UNC in succession. Without question, running the gauntlet to a 12-0 season will not be easy.
If they cannot perform at an elite or near-elite level in 2021, the Irish will drop back yet again. However, if they are capable of performing at that level and bridging the gap between the success of the recent past and the success of the near future, then Notre Dame will have taken a big step towards becoming that which all college football teams in the modern era want and increasingly need to become: the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Onward Notre Dame.