If Notre Dame fires Brian Kelly at some point this season or after it, Saturday night will be framed as the beginning of the end. That would be a narrow interpretation of reality. Kelly entered this season on the hot seat after canning both of his coordinators and losing his starting quarterback early to the NFL draft. It’s possible he started moving toward the end a while ago. But the Fighting Irish gave him a chance to turn things around this season, and a 20–19 loss to Georgia in Week 2 would mark the first sign in 2017 that he was not able to pull it off.
The Bulldogs emerged with that one-point margin after Notre Dame regained possession with under two minutes remaining in regulation and a chance to drive down the field for a winning field goal. Bulldogs senior linebacker Davin Bellamy blew past Fighting Irish senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, a projected future first-round draft pick, and sacked quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush coughed up the ball and the Bulldogs recovered to cap a smothering defensive showing in which Wimbush completed only 19 of his 39 passing attempts and stud running back Josh Adams was held to 53 rushing yards on 19 carries (2.8 YPC).
The defeat will obviously put more heat on Kelly. That’s not only because the Fighting Irish dropped a winnable home game one week after an encouraging season-opener in which Wimbush had his way with a solid Temple defense in his starting debut, but also because the L threads the needle of involving both a highly ranked opponent and a one-possession margin, two blotches on Kelly’s résumé. Notre Dame did not hire a new offensive coordinator to produce 266 yards of total offense in primetime games, and it shouldn’t allow teams led by true freshman quarterbacks to come into South Bend and leave with wins.
For as eager as detractors will be to pounce on Notre Dame the week after it reentered the major polls, though, it’s possible this will mark the lowest point of its season. The Fighting Irish’s schedule opens up from here, with four consecutive games against squads far less formidable than Georgia: At Boston College (Sept. 16), at Michigan State (Sept. 23), vs. Miami of Ohio (Sept. 30) and at North Carolina (Oct. 7). Notre Dame should be able to brush off this loss to win at least three of those games, which would put it in decent shape heading into an Oct. 21 meeting with No. 6 USC.
And for all we know, this could end up registering as a hard-fought result against the SEC’s top team not named Alabama. With Florida flopping in its opener against Michigan and Tennessee barely squeaking past Georgia Tech in double overtime despite getting gashed for 655 yards last week, the Bulldogs could well take the division and give the Crimson Tide a game in the conference title bout. The Bulldogs may not be a College Football Playoff team, but they look improved in coach Kirby Smart’s second season, and that stifling defense makes a spot in a New Year’s Six Bowl, if not the CFP, feel attainable.
Anyone who gave the Fighting Irish a shot of making the playoff this season was being unrealistic. SI.com pegged it as a sleeper team in the preseason, but that was more to indicate that we were bullish on it outperforming expectations—not to argue it could present a legitimate case for a place in the national semifinals. Notre Dame dropped a slew of close games last season, and its underlying power ratings reflected it was better than its 4–8 record suggested. One could counter that Kelly’s coaching is the biggest culprit for that gap, but it’s also true the Fighting Irish ought to benefit in the win column from not having such rotten luck.
Lower the bar on Notre Dame’s expectations, and it’s still on track to have a reasonably successful season. That won’t necessarily mean being in the discussion for a final four bid, but it does mean a significant uptick from last season’s 4–8 debacle. Whatever Kelly’s fate, he could coach this team to a respectable finish even after getting off to a less-than-perfect start with another frustratingly close loss.