Notre Dame Has Not Arrived ... Yet
Over the last three seasons, head coach Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame staff have brought the program a very long way.
The first seven years of Kelly’s tenure was more of the same for Notre Dame, the occasional strong season surrounded by disappointment. Following the program’s 4-8 disaster in 2016, Kelly made sweeping changes to the program, hiring three new coordinators and overhauling the strength and conditioning program.
Since then the Irish have quickly emerged as one of the nation’s ten best programs. Notre Dame’s win percentage (.846) the last five seasons is the fifth best among Power 5 teams, trailing only Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
I’ll get to how the Irish stack up to the top programs in a minute, but let’s focus on Notre Dame first. The last three years is the program’s best stretch since Lou Holtz was on the sidelines. It was the first three-year stretch of at least 10 wins since 1991-93, and winning at least 10 games in the regular season in back-to-back seasons hadn’t been accomplished since 1988-89.
The numbers blow away any multi-year stretch from the last 20 years.
The biggest improvement Kelly made in recent seasons has been an ability to beat the teams they are supposed to beat, which means unranked opponents. From 2010 to 2016, Notre Dame lost 11 games to opponents that finished the season unranked. In the last three seasons Notre Dame has gone 25-0 against opponents that finished unranked.
While the 8-6 record against ranked opponents can’t touch what Holtz accomplished from 1988 to 1993, it is certainly a dramatic improvement over what the program did from 2010-16, a stretch in which the Irish went 8-20 against ranked opponents.
What has helped Notre Dame in recent seasons has been a softening of the schedule, which has been partly by design (the ACC deal is part of this) and partly due to USC and Stanford being down (they are just 26-24 the last two seasons).
The decision makers at Notre Dame continue to give the football program challenging schedules (see below), but the fact is the addition of more Group of 5 programs and lessening the burden in September has made it more manageable.
During the dominant Holtz stretch (1988-93), 44.6-percent of Notre Dame’s opponents finished ranked in the final Top 25, compared to just 35.9-percent during the last three seasons. Those Holtz teams played a schedule where 27.0-percent of the schedule finished ranked in the Top 10, compared to just 7.7-percent during the last three seasons.
If you count only regular season games, the 1988-93 schedule, Top 10 opponents made up 20.6-percent of the schedule, compared to just 5.6-percent in the last three seasons under Kelly.
Making the September schedule more manageable has been a major contributor. In the last three seasons Notre Dame has played programs like Temple, Miami (Ohio), Ball State, Vanderbilt, New Mexico and Bowling Green in September. Notre Dame has gone 12-2 in September the last three seasons after going just 19-10 the first ten years.
This is not a knock on Kelly, the Notre Dame decision makers or the schedule. It is not meant to cheapen the success from the last three seasons. This is a positive development for the program, and it’s the decision makers removing an unnecessary road block that was in front of Kelly and the program.
Notre Dame should always schedule tough, but what was happening in the past was poor management of the tough schedule. That has improved greatly in recent seasons, and it needed to be done.
Notre Dame is now on more of an even playing field with other top programs due to the schedule softening. It has allowed Notre Dame to make a jump and show growth as a program, which has allowed Kelly and the Irish to close the gap on the top programs. From 2010 to 2016, Notre Dame finished the season ranked just three times and unranked four times.
From 2017 to 2019, Notre Dame has finished the season ranked No. 5, No. 11 and No. 11 in the final Associated Press Poll. There are only six teams to finish each of the last three seasons ranked in the Top 15: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia …. and Notre Dame.
That growth has put Notre Dame in position where it is on the cusp of being an elite program, but it has not arrived at that point … yet.
Being an elite program means beating other elite programs, and that’s something Notre Dame has rarely done under Kelly, and hasn’t done at all in the last three years. The Irish are just 4-4 against opponents that finish ranked in the Top 15 and are 0-3 against opponents that finished in the Top 10.
While Notre Dame’s overall record is comparable to the top programs, their lack of “big wins” keeps them from being in that discussion. Notre Dame is just 1-7 against the teams listed above under Kelly, and it’s 0-3 against those teams in the last three seasons. The only win came in 2012 (Oklahoma).
Notre Dame won two games against LSU, but the Tigers weren't then what they are now.
Notre Dame’s lack of success against top teams keeps it well behind the top programs:
Notre Dame has fewer Top 25 wins, a lower win percentage against Top 25 teams, fewer Top 15 wins, a lower win percentage against Top 15 teams and they are the only “top team” to not win a single game against a team that finished the season in the Top 10. In fact, every other program that is considered “elite” has won at least three games against Top 10 finishers.
The Irish went 11-2 in 2019, but it went 1-2 against opponents that finished ranked in the Top 25. Its Top 25 wins in 2018 were over Syracuse (10-3) and Northwestern (9-5). The only games that come close to being “big wins” for the Irish in recent seasons were in 2017, when Notre Dame put a 49-14 beat down over a USC team that finished ranked No. 12 and a 38-10 beating of Michigan State, who finished No. 15.
Notre Dame and Oklahoma are the only two programs in this breakdown with zero playoff wins.
As the breakdown above shows, Notre Dame is still playing a tougher schedule than other top programs, but the overall strength of schedule has come down for Notre Dame, and that is a positive development. While some might complain about Notre Dame having a less exciting home schedule, the reality is a softening of the schedule was needed if the Irish were going to have a legit shot to compete for a title.
Notre Dame kept trying to schedule like it was 1988 while other programs continued to make their schedules easier and easier with soft non-conference schedules, and conference expansion also made schedules softer.
The administration and decision makers have eliminated all the road blocks to Notre Dame being an elite program. The school has spent hundreds of millions of dollars renovating and modernizing the stadium, enhancing the football facilities and of course the aforementioned schedule changes.
It is time for the football program to take the next step.
Kelly is on the verge is signing a big contract extension, and that is a reward for getting Notre Dame back to being relevant. But the standard at Notre Dame should always be about winning championships and building the program to the point where you are legitimate title contender year after year. Notre Dame is closer to being on that level than it has been since 1993, but it isn’t there yet.
Every decision Kelly should make from now until he retires should be about getting over the hump. Notre Dame can be on that level, and any excuse provided that they can’t get to that level is one that can be easily debunked. Is it harder at Notre Dame? Yes, but it’s absolutely doable.
That is the standard Notre Dame should be held to. Not "hey, they were really good," which is what the Irish have been the last three years. The standard should be whether or not they maximized the talent of the roster and starts winning some of the big games.
Until Notre Dame can finally win “the big one” and beat a “national program” it will continue to not get the respect it deserves based on how good it has been in recent seasons. Until that happens, Notre Dame will be on the level of the Penn State’s and Wisconsin’s of the world, and it will continue to look up to programs like Clemson, Ohio State, Alabama and even Oklahoma.
This was a discussion that has been raging for the last two decades, but the difference now is Kelly has Notre Dame right on the cusp. Now it's time to leap that final hurdle.