“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.
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.
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.