Notre Dame Has Finally Reached Top Program Status

Bryan Driskell

My colleague and friend Lou Somogyi at Blue & Gold Illustrated has done a masterful job in recent years pointing out the difference between being a great team and a great program.

For over 20 seasons the Notre Dame football program was wandering in the wilderness. The once great program was mired in mediocrity for the better part of two decades, with just the occasional “Have we finally come back moments” here and there. They had the occasional really good team, but a big-time program they were not.

From 1994 to 2016, Notre Dame had just three seasons with at least 10 wins. That includes the end of the Lou Holtz tenure through the first seven years of Brian Kelly’s regime. Notre Dame was never anywhere close to being considered one of the nation’s premier programs for any reason other than its history and tradition.

The “good seasons” were anomalys, and Notre Dame had long since stopped being a big-time football program based on on-field success.

With a 10-2 regular season in 2019, head coach Brian Kelly has achieved a level of success that Irish fans have not seen since the last golden era of Notre Dame football, and he’s turned Notre Dame back into a strong football program.

When Notre Dame beat Stanford it gave the Irish 10 regular season wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1988-89. It gave the Irish 10 wins for a third-straight season, something the Irish had not done since it accomplished the same feat from 1991-93.

Over the last two seasons there are just six Power 5 programs with at least 10 regular season wins both years. Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia and Notre Dame.

When you are in a group with those schools your program is certainly in a position few are in, and for Notre Dame it has been a very long time since we’ve seen it accomplish this level of sustained success. In fact, since the stretch of 10-win seasons from 1991-93, Notre Dame has won just nine games in back-to-back seasons just twice (2005-06), bowl games included.

It goes deeper than just the wins. Over the last two seasons Notre Dame has finally become a relatively balanced football team, one that can be successful on offense and defense. The 2012 team was fueled by a dominant defense that overcame an average offense, which was also the case in 2000 and 2002. The 2005-06 teams were sparked by an elite offense that helped overcome an average defense.

Notre Dame held its 2018 and 2019 opponents to fewer than 20.0 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2001-02. Notre Dame held its opponents to under 350 yards per game in back-to-back seasons for just the second time since 1994. The Irish pass defense held opponents to just 163.7 yards per game, its second best mark of the last two decades. The only defense to hold opponents to fewer passing yards was the 2007 squad, which only held teams down because few tried to pass on a defense that could stop no one from running the football.

On offense, the Irish scored 445 points this fall, which is the most regular season points in Irish history. If Notre Dame finishes the bowl season with its current 37.1 points per game average it would be the program’s third-best scoring average since the end of World War II (1968, 1992).

Notre Dame also ranked in the Top 20 nationally in both kick coverage and punt coverage, and the Irish special teams made a huge impact in the win over Stanford and also came up big against Georgia.

On the recruiting trail, Notre Dame has dramatically improved its overall talent and depth in recent seasons, and the 2020 class is bringing in arguably the best offensive skill haul of Kelly’s tenure. The 2021 class is ranked No. 1 in the nation according to 247Sports and Rivals.

Notre Dame has not reached the pinnacle yet, and championships is ultimately the goal for this program, and should be. But getting to that level requires first established a strong foundation, and that was we have seen the last three seasons.

There are upcoming articles that will discuss what is next for Notre Dame, and the need to build on what was established the last two seasons. There is a legitimate debate to be had about the next level, and who can or can’t get Notre Dame to the next level, or even if there is a next level for Notre Dame.

There is also room to debate whether the 2019 season was as good as it should have been, and any reader of my columns this season knows my frustration with how the season played out.

But any rational observer of the Notre Dame program should be able to accept, acknowledge and appreciate the job Brian Kelly and his staff have done at rebuilding the Notre Dame program. They took a program that was middle-of-the-road for over two decades and built it into one of the seven to ten best teams in the nation.

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Comments (12)
No. 1-7

Very well done, Bryan. I’ll always look upon Kelly’s tenure with a true acknowledgment and appreciation of how I felt this year. He made me feel a 10-2 season was “ehh” and wanted more. I no longer think there is a huge talent or scheme gap. I no longer truly think those middle of the pack teams (UVA, UNC, Duke, Navy, VT) will knock ND off. Whether he’s the man for the job to one day bring home a national championship remains to be seen but I do respect the the job he has done to ask for more than 10-2.


Bryan, I don't think we can call our self a top program when we lose every single time we get on the big stage.


Really good - TY!


Your podcasts and Lou Somogyi's et al are my favorites. But you and Lou together knocked it out of the park!


Good read Bryan.... I said many times during 2016 that my biggest disappointment with Brian Kelly wasn’t that he hadn’t won a title, it was that ND had not become at least a program to the level of where Stanford and Wisconsin were under him.

I felt at the time that was very possible, and that to get there he just had to beat the teams he should beat. 2010- beat Tulsa and Navy.. 2011 beat USF and don’t blow a 4th quarter lead to Michigan... 2013 beat Pitt, 2014 beat Louisville and Northwestern...just changing those games gets ND to 10 wins in each of those seasons.

Since the start of 2017 we’ve seen Brian Kelly turn ND into a program to the level of Wisconsin by simply beating those teams we should beat. The last 3 years Notre Dame and Bama are the only schools that haven’t lost to an unranked opponent.

As you said, there is still a ways to go to get to the top, and there is a debate if Kelly can get us there, but he deserves credit for getting us where we are..


I agree with Kmoore, nationally ND is a big stage disaster. Until then very few will care about 10 wins.


I’ll give Kelly a ton of credit for what he’s accomplished. The first half of the Stanford game gave me flashbacks to the last 15 years of ND losing a game like that.

We didn’t play all that well and still won 45-24. Recruiting is at an all time high for his tenure as well. Now fire Jeff Quinn and I’ll be a happy camper