Sometimes I will spend 90 minutes researching some obscure but fascinating stat that most people will skip over when reading an article. It adds ridiculous amounts of time to even the shortest articles. However, nothing I’ve done over the years took the drawn-out process of thinking more than the “Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame” now over 7 years old from its initial publishing date. Here’s a link to the 4th part which has the links to the first three within if you’re up for more reading:
Prior to the 2015 season, I re-visited “Rebuilding” in a little bit of a shorter 3-part series:
The simplest viewpoint for these articles was this: Stop the backsliding and leave the program at least a couple notches better than you found it. Don’t suck, raise the tide of the program, attempt to pick away at some of Notre Dame’s historical bars for success, and set up the program to keep the ball rolling for a strong(er) hire in the future.
There were 10 Keys to Success that I had identified back in 2011 and when I revisited them in August 2015 these were the grades I handed out:
- Solidified Coaching Staff: B
- Beat More Ranked Teams: B
- Avoid Losing Seasons: B+
- Develop the QB Position: C+
- Maintain Healthy Roster Depth: B+
- Push the Envelope with Technology: B+
- Blow Out Opponents: D+
- Decrease the Bad Losses: B
- Recruit Football-First: B
- Mental Team Toughness: A-
In more recent times, I touched a little bit on the “Rebuilding” after the 2016 season. These were some dark, dark times, be careful with this re-read:
One of my talking point in the original series was that Notre Dame needed to be patient with Brian Kelly. They’ve certainly been that, and more. By most accounts, Kelly deserved to be fired after 2016 but was allowed the chance to reinvent himself with 5 years remaining on his contract.
Now, let me revisit the grades for the Keys following 2018. Keep in mind I’m grading based on events since 2015 but also with an eye towards Irish history, too.
Solidified Coaching Staff: A-
We’re currently in the high water mark for Kelly in this regard. He did famously “lose” Mike Elko to Texas A&M although the retention of Clark Lea in order to elevate him to defensive coordinator has looked like an inspired move thus far.
Particularly on offense with the success of keeping Chip Long as coordinator we haven’t seen this type of stability on that side of the ball in a long time. We should also mention Mike Elston has been one of the best assistants in the country.
Beat More Ranked Teams: B+
This has been a slow and steady, although not always linear, area of improvement. Through his first 5 seasons, Kelly was 7-14 against ranked teams. Since then, he’s 8-10 including 7-4 over the last 2 years. Lou Holtz won 58% of his games against ranked teams so being near the 64% mark over the last two campaigns is encouraging.
Avoid Losing Seasons: D
The season that was 2016 absolutely torpedoed this grade. And realistically, still lingers around the program as the biggest knock on Brian Kelly & Co.
Develop the QB Position: B
I will have more on this below. I believe this grade has increased due to the success of DeShone Kizer and Ian Book who were far from nationally renowned recruits. But many questions still remain.
Maintain Healthy Roster Depth: A
Since we’re looking at scholarship numbers and roster depth almost every other month we are forced to nitpick things. Still, I can’t remember a time this century when the roster was this thoroughly strong across the board even if it’s lacking in certain areas with elite talent.
Push the Envelope with Technology: B+
I left this grade the same on the basis that it’s difficult to beat the massive weight of the Crossroads project. Still, the new indoor practice facility is scheduled to open this fall (with further improvements and expansion coming to the Gug), Notre Dame has been one of the country’s leaders with the Viscis helmets, and we’ve seen glimpses of encouraging (although maybe not revolutionary) strength and conditioning technology.
Since I am a dyed-in-the-wool Nike supporter I will take this opportunity to point out Under Armour was supposed to be bringing something performance-based to Notre Dame and since it’s stock crashed in late 2017 and they’ve gone through a large corporate restructure I guess we aren’t benefiting much from this relationship like anticipated.
Blow Out Opponents: B
The Irish were decidedly average in this area early in Kelly’s tenure. I think the belief persists that there’s something intrinsic about Notre Dame that prevents dominating opponents yet this area has been improving lately.
Using the gauge of wins by at least 20 points, there were only 14 of these victories from 2010-14 and only 6 versus Power 5 opponents. Since 2015, these victories have increased to 18 blow outs, with 10 coming against Power 5 opponents over the last 2 years alone. This includes a run of 6 straight 20+ point win blowouts–5 against Power 5 and 3 against ranked teams–in the 2017 season which lends credence to GITF’s recent article about the best run since the Holtz era.
Decrease Bad Losses: B+
Notre Dame is quietly unbeaten in their last 15 games against unranked opponents. While it’s nothing compared to Alabama’s currently absurd NCAA-record 83-game winning streak against unranked opponents it’s a nice start for the Irish that hopefully continues to grow.
The ghost of 2016 still lingers, though. You can’t just ignore the vomit-inducing 5 losses to unranked teams that year. But, if you felt like covering your eyes, the Irish are 25-0 against unranked opponents and 34-1 against such teams stretching back 2013.
Bad losses by many points has been holding steady for Kelly’s teams. Using 15+ point losses as a metric, Notre Dame has lost 10 such games under Kelly and 5 since 2015: Ohio State (’15), USC (’16), Miami (’17), Stanford (’17) and Clemson (’18). This isn’t too far off Holtz’ 8 such losses in 11 years and is far better than the crippling 28 such losses from 1997 to 2009.
Recruit Football-First: B
In 2019 I don’t love this category anymore and would just re-name this for straight recruiting. There’s a clear argument to be made that Notre Dame has done much better with the talent they bring in and that’s an important key to success. Still, there’s been a lot of room for growth in raw talent acquisition and that hasn’t changed much in recent years.
Mental Team Toughness: A
This has always been a strength for most of Kelly’s teams and they’ve looked incredibly stout in this area over the last 2 seasons. We talk a lot about the coaching staff turning things around after 2016 but a huge part of that falls on the players and their belief. I’m fascinated to see how they handle both the early-season trip to Athens this fall and how they react to the outcome of that game for the rest of 2019.
So, where do things stand for Notre Dame and Brian Kelly as he enters his 10th season with the Irish becoming only the 5th man to coach in South Bend for at least a decade along with Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, and Lou Holtz?
Most of the grades above have improved or are at least respectable if they haven’t been raised much in recent years. Eight of them were tanking in the “Just Do a Good Job with the Next Hire” analysis linked above and they’ve done a 180-degree turn today. There’s one notable exception as the stink of 2016 still lingers.
Here are 3 areas worth talking about in the near-future:
Notre Dame has done well with the talent it has brought in and still has room to get a lot better on the recruiting trail. Often it feels like many of us are in either camp on that topic but both can be true at the same time.
If I may bring up Kelly as the Gray-Area Coach™ a term I began using years ago to describe how he’s generally done very well for himself but far from great. Right now, the recruiting trail is the best proving ground for this GAC™ manifesting itself within the program.
Notre Dame currently sits 9th in the 247 Sports Composite Team Rankings with hopefully more good news coming later this week. It seems highly unlikely that Brian Kelly will be able to push forward and through a higher ceiling at Notre Dame without a boost or two in recruiting.
I wonder if continued measured success on the field will paper over some of the recruiting misses which is fair to argue, to a point. Still, I also wonder if success on the field only heightens the angst about recruiting if the Irish continue to bump into the elite ranks in the polls, only to come crashing down by the end of the season.
By the Book
One of the characteristics of the Rebuilding Notre Dame series is my penchant to argue, “This topic X is make or break and will set up the future.” I argued that about the 2015 season which wasn’t really true and in November 2016 I argued the following 2017 would be Kelly’s last as no Irish coach had ever hit the re-set button and been able to turn things around in a major way.
Now, I’m going to do it again. The success of Ian Book in 2019 feels absolutely massive for the Notre Dame program. Not only in hopefully continuing to pile up a lot of wins on the field, which is the whole point of this endeavor, but also to combat the narrative of Brian Kelly as unable to manage the growth of quarterbacks in his system.
Book’s success could also open the door to a possible return in 2020 and would greatly increase the odds of a very strong 4-year run.
Best 4-Year Runs at Notre Dame Since 1949
Using a 13-game season for projections, 6 more losses over the next 2 seasons gets Notre Dame into the .800 club, 4 losses would tie the 1989-92 run, and 3 losses would beat the top run (.865) since the Leahy days. Lofty goals for sure. Yet, with an experienced quarterback it’s not something to completely dismiss.
Let’s say the next 2 years don’t quite match a historic run mentioned above but Notre Dame plays in at least one more major bowl game during the post-season. You sure wouldn’t want to have 4 years of around .800 winning and have the biggest piece of silverware be the Citrus Bowl.
Such is the hard life of being an independent.
We’ve been talking about true post-season success for Brian Kelly for so long that there’s nothing left to say. Losses to end the 2012, 2015, and 2018 seasons are going to hang over the program until they change that with a win over an elite team after the regular season.
Is This Rebuilt?
Admittedly, these are really strange times. Things looked really bleak no fewer than 29 months ago and since then it’s been the most peaceful and assured Notre Dame program in a good long time.
So, is it fair to say Notre Dame is rebuilt now? Are we able to utter such phrases without a National Championship or do we need to at least see a major bowl win first? These are fascinating questions.
Notre Dame Rankings 2005-18
|YEAR||LOSSES||F/+ RANK||AP RANK|
At worst, the Fighting Irish appear to be meeting expectations a lot more in recent years than at any time in the recent past. Throughout the Brian Kelly era Notre Dame has an average S&P ranking of 16.1 which lines up with the program having the 17th best winning percentage (14th best among Power 5 programs) over that same time frame. What’s more, the Irish have a very good chance of moving past TCU, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, and Florida State to the 9th best winning percentage among Power 5 teams after 2019.
Perhaps the easiest way of figuring out if Notre Dame is rebuilt is to assess where the future program weaknesses could occur.
Since the 2017 pre-season re-boot of the program Brian Kelly has settled into a much more relaxed and confident role as leader of Notre Dame. He doesn’t appear anywhere near as stressed out as his predecessors who coached this long in South Bend. Can this last for a number of years? How will he react if dealt with serious controversy or a run of poor form from the team?
Chip Long doesn’t seem long for Notre Dame as he enters his 3rd year. Clark Lea had a very promising first season and will be pressured to keep the Irish defense as one of the better units in the country. A change in the fortunes of either of these men could derail the program, especially since “hire top-notch assistants” became a renewed emphasis in 2017 and is partly responsible for maintaining Kelly’s demeanor mentioned above.
Developing the quarterback position really can’t be overstated. Should Book struggle it might be back to the drawing board. Should Book not return for 2020 and Jurkovec or another quarterback aren’t up to snuff it would set up a challenging 2020 season with a very green defense.
Player development has been working at an extremely high rate. From the likes of Julian Love and Miles Boykin, to Julian Okwara and Ian Book, this is a tremendous run of turning decent recruits into stars in college. History says this has a ceiling as the Cotton Bowl was a reminder and over time it’s not particularly sustainable. Having this area dry up could be cause for concern in the future.
Nevertheless, Kelly has survived the program re-boot and is poised to thrive at Notre Dame in a consistent way that hasn’t been seen in a couple decades. He scratched back-to-back 10-win seasons off the list last year and heads into 2019 trying to reach greater heights.