Notre Dame Has Not Arrived ... Yet

Bryan Driskell

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.

ND Best 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:

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 1.04.15 PM

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.

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Comments (35)
No. 1-15
t13bru
t13bru

Great breakdown. I think BK has brought ND to the doorstep, but to me all evidence is pointing to him not being the guy who can bring the championship home.

It would be bold but I think a HC change is what's needed to win it all.
The right coach would walk into a team as close to a Championship as any that hasn't won one this decade. I don't know who that coach is though and that may be why Swarbrick is extending BK.

chamgel
chamgel

Once again you’ve nailed it.. And you also hit on something that makes the 2020 schedule so interesting... not only will Notre Dame face one of the elite programs in the country in Clemson, but we also face a Wisconsin program that is on the same tier we are. Those two games will be a great test to show where the program is.

CoachChaney
CoachChaney

Honest and factual breakdown. It’s time for ND to win a playoff game. No more excuses!

PigPen2.0
PigPen2.0

Right on point.
I'll add this: There is something about the way ND prepares that turns them into pushovers when playing an elite team on the road or in a bowl game. Last 4 I can think of were tOSU, Miami, Clemson, Michigan. All 4 were profound embarrassments and the damage done was worse than the loss, as it contributed to the national narrative that ND is a paper tiger or a fraud.

When you play one of these road games, EVERYTHING must line up for ND to win. In some respects that's true for every team, but ND fails in such a colossal fashion that there's something else going on.

Simple explanation in my mind:

Kelly is unable to inspire his team to perform at their best when they step into a rabid, hostile atmosphere. They consistently shrink from the moment and get boat raced. Intimidated? Maybe. But Kelly lacks the ability to help them rise above this.

Bottom line: He simply is NOT an inspirational leader and frankly inspiration is one of those things that has to go right to win those games.

Irishfan11
Irishfan11

Great article. As an ND fan, I’m tired of continuously being let down in the big games. It has been far too common over Kelly’s tenure. I think that is why so many people were excited over the opportunity to bring in a fresh set of eyes as OC. Tommy Rees, fairly or not, represents the status quo. Which we all agree is not good enough. I hope he proves us wrong. Bottom line - Beat Clemson next year. Then we can talk about elite status.

irish4life2
irish4life2

This is the best article you've done yet in my opinion; for what that's worth. Good job!

Jpirish58
Jpirish58

Nice article I agree with most of your points. ND is close and Kelly has made them a contender. I think he should be given the opportunity to take them to the next level. I don't see anyone short of Urban who be a upgrade. ND will.have the chance to beat an elite team in Clemson. Win that game while running the table changes the narrative. Great article overall. 👍

KMoore-24
KMoore-24

Great read. My thoughts are this. Kelly has done a great job getting the program to this level but I don't have faith in him that he can take this program to that true championship level. We have a great staff and unlimited resources but the area where we fall short is talent and that comes down to recruiting. He says he is going to get more involved in recruiting and I am sure he will but for how long? You have to be relentless in recruiting and I just don't think he likes the process of talking and texting and reaching out on social media daily with these recruits where the head coaches at the elite programs are in the trenches with their assistants recruiting their ass off because that's what it takes.

Until we can recruit with the likes of Clemson and Ohio State we are always going to come up short when we play them. Kelly needs to get this program into the top 5 in recruiting to take that next step. It can be done but the jury is out if Kelly is willing to put in the work like other big time head coaches who love the recruiting process.

Polaris6
Polaris6

ND under Kelly has never had an elite qb. This in my opinion along with a more consistent running attack are the keys.

GreenGemsOmally
GreenGemsOmally

I do have a question about this quote: "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)."

Why aren't we counting Michigan State in 2013 as an elite win? We beat them at home, they went 13-1 and finished #3 overall? I get they weren't in that group of Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, etc., but they were in the middle of their very impressive stretch of 10-12 win seasons, they won the Rose Bowl and the Big 10 that year, so beating them should definitely be a huge feather in our cap. I feel like this happens a lot, where a lot of pundits and fans discount this as an elite win considering they were absolutely an elite team that year. Would have been a playoff team had there been a system in place, and just barely missed the NCG that year, but went on to win the Rose Bowl.

CCC25
CCC25

The problem lies only in the recruiting. He's coaching as good as anyone can. But he's not going to beat teams loaded with 5 star prospects across the board. That,s the only problem.

Irish down South
Irish down South

Notre Dame will not leap that final hurdle until becoming a full member of ACC football and winning the conference championship, entering the playoffs as a conference champ.

DukeABQ
DukeABQ

Is seems to me that all of the above QBs that Bryan has mentioned above started out with high hopes and were full of confidence. However, after being confronted by Kelly EVERYTIME they came off the field w/o scoring, they started to lose their confidence. Thus, after continuous pressure from Kelly, they started playing not to make a mistake (IE. Book aims the ball at times). Kelly continues to do this EVERYTIME even to this day Very seldom to you see Saban, Swinney, Franklin, etc berate their QB at ANYTIME and the result is their QBs are not afraid to make a mistake and play with confidence & fluidity.

Irish down South
Irish down South

Notre Dame will not make the final hurdle until it becomes a full member of ACC football and competes for, and earns, a conference championship as part of reaching the playoffs.

brooke413
brooke413

ND has not had an elite quarterback for years. This is the most important position on the field and without a top flight player at quarterback the team is not going to be a top 5 team. This of course can be avoided if you have a running back who can carry the ball 30 times for an average gain of 6 yards per carry. But ND has not had that type of player either. The skill position players are all very good, but they are not first round draft selection good. You can have outstanding tackles and guards that are first round players, but they will not get you over the hump and allow you to beat the top flight schools. Ian Book will be the quarterback this year and it will be his third year at the position. I like him as a very good player, but he has obvious limitations. He does not throw the ball 40 yards with accuracy and while he does make plays with his legs, he cannot be the leading rusher on the team. So, he will have to really improve this year to make the team elite. Or, he has to have a Hershel Walker type running back, and i do not see that in the cards. But hope springs eternal!!


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