Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and college football.
WHAT WILL MAKE FOR A SUCCESSFUL SEASON
A topic was brought up on Irish Maven this week, and it sparked a good discussion. The discussion centered around whether or not the 2019 season can be considered a success if the Irish go 10-2.
It might seem like an easy answer, but it really isn't. Not all records are made the same. Notre Dame went 9-2 in the 2005 regular season, which most Irish fans will consider a major success. The Irish went 10-2 in 2006 during a season that was not nearly as successful.
The reasons for the difference is two-fold. One is expectation and the other is how the record was put together.
The 2005 Notre Dame team wasn't supposed to be good, but it ended up being a Top 10 team. The 2006 team was supposed to be very good, but ended up outside the Top 10.
In 2005, Notre Dame's two losses were to Michigan State in overtime and national runner-up USC on the final play. Notre Dame dominated opponents that season and was incredibly fun to watch.
In 2006, Notre Dame's two losses were embarrassing blowout defeats at the hands of Michigan (47-21) and USC (44-24). Beyond the embarrassing defeats, the Irish had a lot of ugly wins that season as well (UCLA, Georgia Tech, Michigan State), and Penn State was the only good team the Irish beat that season.
That leads me to the discussion about the 2019 squad, which entered the season as a Top 10 team with a chance to make another push for the Playoff. Before we got to November the Irish were already out of the Playoff hunt thanks to an embarrassing blowout loss to Michigan.
The bitter taste many Irish fans have about that game goes far beyond the final score. But it isn't just the loss to Michigan that has frustrated many Notre Dame fans, and myself as an analyst. Simply put, this team has underachieved up to this point.
Notre Dame out-talented a lot of opponents through the first nine games, with the Duke game being the only victory against an opponent with a pulse that both sides of the ball played anywhere close to its full potential. The defense has played well in all but one game, but the offense had been a disappointment against Power 5 opponents.
So what does that mean? Is 2019 a disappointing season?
The answer is .... we don't know yet. How the next three games and how the bowl game play out will go a long way towards determining that. For me, I know what I need to see over the next month to declare the 2019 regular season a success.
1. Be Dominant - Notre Dame plays Navy (7-1), Boston College (5-5) and Stanford (4-5) down the stretch. Navy easily being the best opponent left on the schedule says a lot about the quality of Notre Dame's final three opponents. Notre Dame has some injuries, but so does BC and Stanford, so that excuse is already out the window.
If Notre Dame wants this season to be considered a success it must not only win these games, but it has to look good doing it. I'm okay if the Navy game is close, because this is a really good Navy team, but there's really no excuse for BC and Stanford to be competitive.
Notre Dame needs to be balanced in those wins and bury inferior opponents. Let's be honest, BC and Stanford aren't very good. BC lost by 24 to Kansas - at home. Yes, Kansas. They lost by 52 to Clemson and just lost to Florida State - at home - just days after FSU fired their coach.
Stanford just lost to 4-6 Colorado, lost by 18 - at home - to 4-5 UCLA, and its three other losses were by 25, 18 and 15 points.
2. The Offense Needs To Take Off - Notre Dame's offensive performance against Duke needs to be the launching point for that side of the ball. Navy is a quality defense, but the Irish absolutely have a significant talent advantage. Notre Dame needs to play well this weekend on offense.
Moving forward, Boston College ranks 107th in defensive efficiency and Stanford ranks 73rd. There is no excuse not to be dominant on offense against that kind of competition.
This is especially true on the ground. Boston College is giving up over 180 yards per game on the ground, and Stanford has allowed an average of 219 rushing yards per game in its last three contests.
3. Be Willing To Make Changes - Continuing to do the same things over and over again when it's clearly not working is one of the most maddening aspects of the Brian Kelly era, which overall has been quite good. We are seeing that again this season.
I want to see the Irish staff be willing to make adjustments and make changes down the stretch. That doesn't mean just benching players or playing young guys, although that could and should be part of it.
It means not being okay with what has happened so far, being willing to make adjustments - personnel or schematic, and pushing the buttons needed to get this team to finally play to its potential. Just "coaching a little better" and "playing a little better" doesn't fix the deeper issues that plagued this football team. There needs to be greater accountability.
If Kelly and the staff can do these things, and get Notre Dame to finally play to its potential this season, then 10-2 will look much, much better.
It would mark the first time since 1988-89 that Notre Dame had back-to-back seasons of at least 10 wins in the regular season. It will go a long way towards removing the bad taste from the mouths of Irish fans, and will send the Irish into the bowl season with a great deal of momentum, and confidence.
WHAT TO DO WITH ALABAMA?
I was quite pleased to see Alabama ranked outside the Top 4 of the latest College Football Playoff rankings. I wasn't surprised to see Georgia ranked No. 4, which meant three of the top five teams in the rankings were from the SEC.
In another time and space I will discuss the constant over-hyping of the SEC, but for now let's focus on Alabama.
Here's the reality. Alabama is a really, really, really talented football team. They are certainly one of the four most "talented" football teams, but does having incredible talent mean you should automatically be a top four team? Should your past success vault you over other teams? In short .... no.
Alabama and the SEC have worked very, very hard to make the path to the Playoff as seamless as possible for the Crimson Tide. Alabama hasn't played Georgia in the regular season since 2015, and before that the teams had not met in the regular season since 2008.
Alabama hasn't played Florida in the regular season since 2014.
Head coach Nick Saban has done a masterful job at scheduling in a way to achieve maximum success. He will play decent teams in the non-conference, but it is always on a neutral field in a pro-Alabama region.
Alabama last played a road game against a non-SEC Power 5 opponent back in 2011. Since that time, Clemson has played a neutral site game against Auburn and had a home-and-home with Auburn, it had a home game against Notre Dame, had a home-and-home with Georgia, had a home-and-home with Texas A&M and has played four road games against South Carolina.
While the talking heads at ESPN spend the vast majority of their time on talking about the Playoff, which is a money maker for them, the reality is what makes College Football the greatest sport is how important the regular season is for fans and teams.
Alabama has done major damage to the value of the regular season. The committee CANNOT reward Alabama for doing this anymore than it already has. If Alabama goes undefeated, fine, put them in, but with their loss to LSU the Tide should have no chance at making it to the Playoff.
Let's be honest, Alabama will play two tough games all season. The response I hear from the "experts" at ESPN is to talk about the "eye-test." I have actually heard Kirk Herbstreit argue that it doesn't matter who a team plays, it's about how they look.
Then tell me this, why was Boise State never given a shot to play for the title? Why didn't the 13-0 Broncos get a shot to play Texas in 2009? Why did Alabama get that shot? Alabama barely beat a 7-6 Tennessee team and an 8-5 Auburn team while Boise State had one game decided by less than 10 points.
The eye test should have told anyone willing to listen that the 2009 Broncos were a really, really, really good football team that on any given Saturday could beat anyone.
What's that you say? They played a soft schedule, and which means they didn't deserve a chance to play for a title?
Exactly. And that's why Alabama doesn't deserve a chance to play for the title in 2019. The committee needs to send a very clear - and loud - message, stop trying to schedule your way into the Playoff. Challenge yourself, or you'll find yourself sitting at home come Playoff time.
Consider this: Alabama's wins have come over opponents with a combined 31-45 record. It beat 6-3 Texas A&M and 6-3 Southern Miss. It's next best win was over 5-5 Tennessee. I'm serious, one of Alabama's best wins - nine games into the 2019 season - is over Tennessee, a team that lost to BYU and Georgia State.
TWEET OF THE WEEK
During the summer I stated, on multiple occasions, that I didn't see how Notre Dame could play top-level defense with Asmar Bilal as a starting linebacker.
Bilal had the athleticism and toughness, but he never showed the instincts or feel for the game. How does a play go from not showing those skills for four years to all of a sudden showing it? No way Bilal could do that.
Well, I was wrong, in a big way, and I've thoroughly enjoyed watching Bilal prove me wrong week after week. Against Duke, his strong play earned him a spot on the PFF Team of the Week.
FILM TO WATCH
Notre Dame gained a summer commitment from one of the nation's premier offensive linemen in the 2021 when Avon (Ind.) High School offensive tackle Blake Fisher committed to the Irish.
Fisher was absolutely dominant during his junior season, which you can see in his latest season highlights.