Where Does Brian Kelly Have Notre Dame Football Headed?

“We’re not where we want to be, but thank goodness we aren’t where we used to be.”

This is a quote former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz has used on a number of occasion regarding various things, but it is especially apt when describing the current state of the Notre Dame football program. It feels like the football team has been wandering aimlessly around college football for the last couple of decades, unsure about where exactly they are headed or how to get there.

Is this still a program all about national championships? You’d think yes, since they have 11 of them, and given their independent status there is no conference title to win. But, Notre Dame hasn’t won a title since 1988, so perhaps a benchmark lower than that ought to be considered as favorable. As any fan who follows the program closely undoubtedly knows, they haven’t won a major bowl game since the 1994 Cotton Bowl and they just had back to back 10 win seasons for the first time since 1992-1993.

Most fans are loath to acknowledge any sort of lowering of program standards, and the official line from players and Kelly has always been something to effect of “we’re about national championships, the end”. However, the landscape of college is vastly different from where it was in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Alabama and Clemson rule the college football world, with Ohio State just behind them. Is Notre Dame on the verge of joining that group?

Notre Dame Has Come A Long Way Under Brian Kelly

Head coach Brian Kelly is immensely polarizing figure in South Bend. He’s got his die hard fans and he’s got those who want nothing to do with him, convinced he’ll never be good enough to take Notre Dame to the pinnacle. There is a case to be made on both sides of that, but let’s not forget how far the program had fallen prior to his arrival.

Lou Holtz had the Irish program at the top of the sport from 1988-1993, playing 67 of 74 game weeks as a top 10 team. They were always really good, with a national title in 1988, and near misses in 1989, 1990, 1992, and 1993. In the playoff era, Notre Dame is a final four team all of those years, with the possible exception of 1992 when they finished the regular season at #5. Point is, they were essentially what Ohio State is today, expected to be part of the national picture. Post 1993 is when things started to turn for the worst.

From 1994-2011, which spanned 220 game weeks, the Fighting Irish football team took the field as a top 10 team just 20 times, and topped out at 10 wins on two occasions, in 2002 and 2006. Notre Dame has never been irrelevant from a national perspective, the media talks about them constantly, and they have always generated excitement. But, from an on field perspective, they were irrelevant. No real reason to take them seriously.

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Things have shifted under Kelly and it started with the 2012 season. From 2012-2018, his teams have taken the field as a top 10 unit 43 times out of 90 game weeks. They’ve had two undefeated regular seasons, two other times they finished with 10 wins. That’s no one’s idea of greatness, but goodness look at where they were prior to his arrival. They aren’t where they want to be, but they are at least knocking on that door.

All of this data came from the terrific website database alexanderbess.com.

Where To From Here for Notre Dame?

Things are better, but they aren’t best, and Notre Dame is about being best. Fortunately, Kelly understands this and the disaster that was 2016 seems to have opened his eyes to how he needs to operate as the face of Notre Dame football. But, there is the matter of getting there and that path isn’t clear cut.

First, they’ve needed a number of program upgrades and have taken steps to address them. Stadium renovations, practice facilities, weight rooms, training tables have all been overhauled in recent years to bring the football operation closer to their competition.

Second, an upgrade in the strength program was badly needed and Kelly appears to have hit a home run with Matt Balis, who has received rave reviews ever since his arrival in the winter of 2017.

Third, he has solidified a top notch coaching staff with young and innovative coordinators.

The final piece is recruiting, which may be the most challenging of all. Notre Dame has long made the decision they are not going to compromise the core tenets of the school, which is excellence in the classroom as well as on the field, for the sake of better performance on the field. They have also placed a higher emphasis on culture fits within the program, shying away from players who they feel would be risks to make it in South Bend. This obviously has some drawbacks, essentially eliminating a lot of potential high level recruits right off the bat, either because of Notre Dame’s, or the players, lack of interest. For better or worse, it isn’t just about the football in South Bend.

Since the end of 2016, Notre Dame has seen a resurgence on the recruiting front, building through their two lines and the defensive front seven, and the 2020 recruiting haul has seen an influx of top level skill position talent, with two top 50 players at receiver and running back respectively. This group has a chance to finish in the top 10 nationally, a rarity under Kelly.

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The schools Notre Dame is chasing–Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State– however, continue to recruit at levels Notre Dame is unlikely to reach anytime soon. There is real value in Kelly creating distance between themselves and some of the mid tier schools (think Pitt) on the recruiting front. Widening that gap is very beneficial. The point is to be champions though, and with the playoff system the way it is, dodging one of the true blue bloods to win one is unlikely to happen.

Enjoy This Time

Let’s appreciate we are now having the “how do we win that national title?” conversation instead of wondering if Randy Edsell would work out here. Gosh that was the worst timeline. A 10 win season being the expectation and not the hope is an improvement, even if it feels like it isn’t, and the play on the field is very high quality.

This year will probably come down to the two big road games, Athens and Ann Arbor, and this conversation could be a lot different in October. For the time being, by all objective measures, the program is in a healthy place with an eye toward taking the final step. Thank goodness for that.

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18 comments

  1. duranko 5 months ago

    This weekend, the roster changes.

    The incoming freshman defenders have gobs of potential, and have been carefully selected by Clark Lea and his droogies,
    after the Diaco-Van Gorder-Hudson-Elko journey.

    The old days of Big, Big skill and skill are now passe, and these guys have been playing their postions, well, more or less.

    The defensive backfield is star studded, even though most have Wallace as a three. Unlike years past, when Elliott would have to be converted to play safety, Hamilton and Ajavon are good to go.

    Zay Rutherford and KJ Wallace have been toiling out there in the fields of cornerback work.

    Owonu, Bertrand and Lufau are a cut above the Drew White, David Adams class.

    Foskey, while converting from a dual role at DeLaSalle, is a solid DE prospect, and Cross learned how to play from his daddy.

    This cadre of 9 kids is yet a notch below what Bama and Georgia are recruiting, yet is miles beyond the talent level brought in just a few years past.

    Note this: these 9 kids and get back to me in 2021 and let me know if you see the difference..

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    1. david 5 months ago

      Ah, recruits.

      Saban has better, Dabo does more, Riley is rising, and others are hungrier.

      Enjoy the season.

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      1. Bruce Gregory Curme 5 months ago

        Correction, David: None are hungrier.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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  2. david 5 months ago

    If Saban would take him, I’d love to see Brian Kelly go to Alabama as an intern.
    There’s no shame in learning solid employment skills at any age now.
    60 is the new 30.

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    1. Ron Burgundy 5 months ago

      Dear diary…

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      1. david 5 months ago

        Ron Burgundy, mean girl venting in her burn book.

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    2. ndcrazymike 5 months ago

      If SABAN would take you dopey davey then ALABAMA could have the stupidest fan in all of college football!! We all won”t miss you dope, plus you could learn employment skills that would get you out of your mommy”s house!! CMON dopey take a leap ( preferably off a cliff ) !!!!!!

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  3. Damian 5 months ago

    I’m much more skeptical of BK than I used to be. He is an improvement over the Davies/Willingham/Weis era, yes. And I think you could argue ND is even a respectable program now. We have a team other teams do have to take seriously. Under D/W/W it got to the point good schools could almost write off ND as a win. Nowadays all our opponents treat us as a serious opponent.

    And ND is an above average CFB team. We could probably beat 97 to 98% of the teams out there. But there’s 98% of CFB, then there’s that upper 1 or 2% that is far and away the best teams out there and they are so far ahead of the competition it’s almost unreachable. Unfortunately ND is still way behind those teams.

    I’m not sure how ND breaks that ceiling. I’m skeptical that BK can take them to that high level, but honestly I’m not sure any coach can. ND might have to sacrifice what it means to be ND.

    Now, I don’t want to see ND do the same things other schools do, that is make classes almost optional, create fake majors just to satisfy NCAA requirements and so forth. Classes have to come first. But can ND do other things? During the Holtz era they did take some chances on some recruits that maybe normally wouldn’t have been offered. That doesn’t mean you sacrifice academics. They still have to go to class and education is still a priority. But perhaps they can work with them and find ways to help them get through school (ethically with things like tutoring—and not by cheating).

    But there is a line ND should not cross like other schools have. CFB should not be an NFL minor league, which the NCAA has allowed CFB to basically become.

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    1. david 5 months ago

      1) Kelly is better than the 3 previous….who are on the short list of worst ever coaches at ND. So there’s that.
      2) Criticizing other programs does not elevate Kelly.
      3) Mentioning Lou Holtz in an assessment of Kelly is disqualifying.

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    2. duranko 5 months ago

      Very astute, Damian. Incisive.

      For context, please read tim prister’s article about Mike Elston on the Irish Illusrated site. It’s a free article, but limns why Notre Dame
      in fact, is different.

      The most significant difference are twofold. Notre Dame will try to screen out the scumbags before they arrive on campus.
      Percy Harvin, Will Hill and Aaaron Hernandez, three of Urban Meyer’s prize recruits, are vile, pathetic human beings. Hill’s misogyny was completely anathema to the principles, codes and values
      of Our Lady’s University. Meyer is scum, a great Xand O and motivation guy, who sells his soul to the devil with regularity, and may do so again, SOON, at Southern Cal.

      .Second, Notre Dame tries to give a QUALITY EDUCATION. Not just credits and a a degree. And a lot of the kids at Bama and Georgia, even if clean, nonviolent and nonmisogynistic, just don’t want to deal with that.
      At Notre Dame the kids have to work hard, more now than ever. In my day we had the noted jock course, “astrology and geology”
      aka “Stars and Rocks for jocks.” A campus joke.

      ‘And third, there is sex, or the sexual frenzy in America and on campuses.
      Hell, on most campuses its an untaxed fringe benefit.
      More restrained at Notre Dame. Not absent, but much different. MUCH>
      And some kids exercise their right to say no to that.

      I would have deserted and stopped contributing to Notre Dame if they had hired Meyer. I don’t trust John Jenkins, with his Machievellian
      palace intrigue in shoving Malloy out. Hopefully, more moral minds will prevail.

      But “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul..” I changed my values and my economic model
      when I wrote that on a legal pad in an office in Denver one sunny August afternoon.

      With kids like Jalen Kimber, Clark Phillips, Ransom, Gee Scott, Notre Dame has to hit almost 100% and that may be a bridge
      too far.

      We must always strive. But we must always live by principles first..

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      1. Bruce Gregory Curme 5 months ago

        Duranko,
        You are a good man no question about that.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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  4. duranko 5 months ago

    Greg, there is one other piece of evidence that “arrives” in two weeks. And that is a group of 9 studs on defense in the freshman class. Six are four stars, and three, Bertrand, Wallace and Lufau are three stars. The rest are Hamilton, Ajavon, Zay Rutherford, Owonu, Foskey and Cross.

    remember none of these but Lufau was a late addition. they were handpicked by Clark Lea and his very able staff with specific slotting in Lea’s defense.

    Even though Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Myron Tagavailoa-Amosa and Jordan Genmark Heath have proven more than solid, they were scrambles

    These nine are different. Given their June arrival, they would not be expected to make huge contribution in ’19. but they have credential and Pip’s eternal “Great Expectations.”

    This Gang of Nine constitute a significant upgrade in Notre Dame’s defensive talent, and the majority of them will be champing at the bit beginning in Spring 1920. The floor of the defense of Notre Dame continues to move up. Now we just need to add a few studs to raise the ceiling.

    This is neither the defense that Kelly inherited in 2010 nor the one that troughed in ’16 after some significant recruiting gaps.

    Its different this time, or will be after the “June NINE” arrive.

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  5. pete calco 5 months ago

    Kelly needs an elite qb and he needs to game plan and game coach every game like he did at Oklahoma in 2012 for Notredame to beat a Clemson Georgia Alabama Ohio state.I hate to admit this because I can’t stand the guy but I’ll bet that If urban meyer was coaching notredame this year they would beat both Georgia andMichigan. He is 5 and 0 against Harbaugh and whipped Kirby Smart when he was coordinator at alabama.

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    1. david 5 months ago

      Translation: Kelly needs a critically important positional player to make him look smarter and better.

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  6. Greg Kelly 5 months ago

    Notre Dame/ Brian Kelly runs classy program. They don’t wait till end of season with player with hands on hips denying improprieties.

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  7. Ron Burgundy 5 months ago

    Comments on this one should be entertaining.

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 5 months ago

      Well Burgundy, in honor of your mastery of brevity I’ll sum it up like this: Right now, Notre Dame is just about where it ought to be. You can thank a lot of people for that, of course, but especially Jack and Brian. At the end of the 2016 season, I would have paid him out, but Swarbrick made the better call. Nice call, Jack.

      BGC ’77 ’82

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    2. david 5 months ago

      None from you though.
      Just drive-by cowardly quip responses.

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