It’s about the time of year that Notre Dame fans start to ask themselves the same question: what do you expect from the team this year? It’s fair to say the win-loss expectations are tempered, responses will probably arrive in the range of a pre-season top 15 ranking and a 9 or 10 win season.
In a vacuum, those expectations seem warranted. The Irish lost three, first round picks (I’m counting Jaylon Smith as a first rounder because, well, he is), their three best players on the Irish defense, four captains from the defense and the most explosive offensive threat since Golden Tate and Rocket Ismail.
In total, seven players were taken in the first four rounds of the NFL draft from the 2015 squad. That team finished 10-3. It would be hard to make a big case for an 11 win season given those facts. But, it’s year seven. If Kelly is to turn Notre Dame into a consistent football power there is no time like the present.
Let’s be clear, Kelly has done well to even give himself the opportunity to make this turn into national dominance for the Notre Dame football program. His tenure in South Bend followed a similar trajectory of all the great coaches who came through the program, highlighted by going undefeated in the regular season of year three–with a team who had no business earning such a distinction–and it looked like Notre Dame had permanently arrived on the scene, as promised.
What followed was a series of events that a reasonable person couldn’t predict or even prepare for: losing his starting quarterback to suspension, five key players getting suspended two weeks before the season, an incredibly bad run of injuries to key players and players leaving early who frankly had no business doing so. The fact that he scraped out a 17-9 record with two bowl wins in 2013 and 2014–amidst all the chaos–gave him the chance to have the bounce back 10 win season in 2015.
But, all that really proves is that Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. Good coaches SHOULD be able overcome those kinds of obstacles and they should take a bad situation and make it into a good outcome. Heck, he did it even in 2015 when he was down to his third string quarterback in the third quarter of the second game.
Kelly can coach, that is no longer the question.
Can Brian Kelly win a national championship at Notre Dame?
That is what remains now. All the bad stuff from 2013 and 2014–the terrible quarterback play, the suspensions–is all gone now and he proved that with what we saw in 2015. That team made a real playoff run, but it proved three times over that is was not of the caliber of the elite teams in college football, which is fine. It really is.
Given the disaster of the previous two seasons, 2015 was essentially Kelly’s second year three, he for all intents and purposes took over a new program in 2013. Consequently, it’s time to make that move up as a program. He has three quarterbacks who can win games for them, there is no turmoil this off-season (knock on, nay, pound on wood) and they are coming off a strong 2015 campaign. Eleven wins should be the expectation, anything less is spinning their wheels.
There are lots of reasons for things to go bad in a season. Key players get hurt, the team gets off to slow starts, they don’t play well at night on the road, poor play in the red zone, too many mistakes on defense, etc. They are all valid and, again in a vacuum, understandable. Injuries severely hamper teams, other schools are very fired up to play Notre Dame in primetime, the team is young, and on and on. At some point there needs to be more reasons that things go right than things that go wrong. The goal is to be the best, not better than what the circumstances called for.
The biggest point in all of this is the results on the field are the final step in the building of Kelly’s program at Notre Dame. He has recruited like gang busters–as of this writing Notre Dame has 16 commits and is in the top 10 of every national service, #2 on Scout and #4 on 247. He is churning out first and second round picks on the offensive line and skill positions almost on a yearly basis, and he’s got an offensive staff that matches any staff in the country. He’s made considerable improvements to non-coaching staff, assigning football analyst roles to respected former coaches around the country. Under his watch improvements in nutrition and the football facilities have been tremendous; he has been the figurehead for those changes being implemented.
Most importantly, Brian Kelly seems to get the bigger picture for what it means to be the Notre Dame coach and a Notre Dame player. He always sold the program as a different kind of place, “we shop from a different aisle” is his famous quote. That mindset has shown itself in his recruiting efforts.
In the last two recruiting cycles, Notre Dame has only had two players decommit, both in 2014, and both due to academic reasons. When his players decided on Notre Dame, they were sure. He also added two high profile, highly successful former players to the football staff, Autry Denson and Todd Lyght. Who can sell what the Notre Dame experience can do for you better than these two guys? Were there more qualified candidates for the jobs? Of course, neither had been in coaching over a few years. But, were there better candidates for the posts at Notre Dame? Doubtful. Again, Kelly gets it.
Notre Dame is in an extremely healthy place right now as far as the direction of the program, the branding of the program with the Under Armour deal and their state of the art social media platform (if you think this doesn’t matter then you don’t know teenagers very well) and the improvements to the football facilities with the new stadium project. It’s all right there, waiting for the Irish to make their ascent to the top of the sport.
But, what does that all mean if Kelly and his team drop the opener at Texas? What does it mean if they can’t figure out short yardage, or they continue to give up big plays on defense? What does it mean if they come up just short against the elite teams again? Then the Irish are again just an also ran, a scrappy little team that doesn’t deserve a place at the big boy table.
What is 2016 to be for Brian Kelly? Is it the year that they finally get out of their own way and cement themselves as an elite program? Or will they once again find another set of reasons that it just wasn’t to be? If it can be the former we can be seeing the start of the next golden age of Notre Dame football.