It has now been 30 years since Notre Dame last won a national championship. 30 years since Lou Holtz’s 1988 team went 12-0 and defeated West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl to clinch Notre Dame’s 11th national title. 30 years. In that time there have been some highs (appearances in the 2005 and 2015 Fiesta Bowls as well as the 2006 Sugar Bowl and the 2012 National Championship game) and some depressing lows (a 5-7 season in 2003, a 3-9 season in 2007 and a 4-8 season in 2016).
2017 was a bit of a bounce back year for the Irish as they rebounded from the aforementioned 4-8 to 10-3 and a win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl. With the season just around the corner, the question that always seems to pop up around Notre Dame is being asked yet again: is this the year?
One of the big reasons for Notre Dame’s massive turnaround from 2016 to 2017 was Brian Kelly’s long overdue staff shakeup. Gone were guys that were on his staff just because they’d been buddies for 20 years and in came fresh new minds to shake some life into the team: new offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new special teams coordinator, new quarterbacks coach, and new strength & conditioning coach.
The moves paid immediate dividends as the Irish got off to an 8-1 start and were ranked as high as #3 heading into November. But then a hallmark of the Brian Kelly era reared its ugly head: road losses to ranked teams. Notre Dame went down to Miami and looked like a more modern incarnation of a Gerry Faust era team and was humiliated 41-8 which erased any chance of getting into the College Football Playoff, before being crushed by Stanford 38-20 two weeks later and eliminating any possibility of going to a NY6 bowl game.
So how can the Irish better prepare for big games in tough road environments? Brian Kelly thinks he has the answer with what is being dubbed “chaos workouts.” In a recent piece featured on ESPN, it was revealed that Kelly and the Irish coaching staff are throwing anything and everything at the players during workouts and during practice to better prepare them for any possible in-game scenarios.
These range from strobe lights flashing in the weight room to sirens and horns blaring over loudspeakers at random times during practices, to pulling an offensive or a defensive player off the field during goal line drills. Perhaps the strangest of all of these was a 4th & goal scenario where Kelly took the football away from his offense and replaced it with a soccer ball and told them to find a way to score (they did not). Will any of this translate to wins?
Maybe. Maybe not. At the very least it shows that Brian Kelly is aware of his failings in big road games with the Irish and is taking steps to attempt to correct it (in his time in South Bend, Brian Kelly is just 17-16 in true road games).
The actual roster is an interesting one. Previous Notre Dame teams under Kelly have always been loaded offensively and severely lacking defensively (the exception being 2012 when Notre Dame rode Manti Teo and a stout defense all the way to the national title game). This year that script has flipped. The defense returns 10 of 11 starters from a unit that performed very well for all but two games last year (the debacles against Miami and Stanford).
The unquestioned leader of the defense is senior Drue Tranquill at the linebacker position (though he played the rover spot last year). Up front guys like Jerry Tillery, Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara make up the core of the best defensive line the Irish have had in Kelly’s 9 years in charge.
Elsewhere on the defense Te’Von Coney has showed up to fall camp looking like a machine and at the back end Troy Pride and Julian Love provide depth and experience at the cornerback position (though Shaun Crawford will be missed after tearing his ACL during practice early this week) while at safety guys like Nicco Fertitta and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman should make quite an impact. The only question mark hanging over the defense is how Clark Lea does replacing Mike Elko at defensive coordinator.
Elko was instrumental in getting the defense from horrific to very good in the space of one year but he bolted for Texas A&M this past offseason (and perhaps not so coincidentally just days after Brian Kelly publicly stated that the money being paid to top defensive coordinators was stupid). However, Lea worked under Elko at Wake Forest and was the linebackers coach for the Irish last year so he’s familiar with the personnel and he’s familiar with the system so I wouldn’t expect too much of a drop from the defense, if any.
The question marks this year are all on the offensive side of the ball. The Irish have a lot to replace with two offensive lineman being selected in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft, their top two receivers and their top running back all gone. We’ll start on the offensive line. Last year Notre Dame had one of the top offensive lines in the country but Mike McGlinchey and Quentin Nelson are gone to the NFL, as is former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (who has been replaced by one of Brian Kelly’s old pals Jeff Quinn).
This would typically be a massive blow and it might end up being the case but Hiestand recruited very well and Quinn has picked up where he left off. There is still plenty of experience on the right side of the line and center Sam Mustipher (who Brian Kelly infamously blamed for Notre Dame’s 2016 loss to NC State) is one of the team captains along with fellow offensive lineman Alex Bars. Another question mark offensively for Notre Dame is the running game.
Josh Adams had so many big runs last year and was a big part of the team’s success last season. But he’s gone now and it’s going to have to be a running back by committee this year. Luckily with Chip Long calling the plays there seems to have been a commitment to running the football and the Irish have a stable of backs to get the job done, though don’t expect any one player to be as prolific as Adams was last year.
A smaller question mark is at the receiver position, traditionally a strength of any Brian Kelly Irish team. But last year’s top two receivers (Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson) are gone and in their place guys like Miles Boykin (the hero of the Citrus Bowl win) Chris Finke and Chase Claypool are going to have to step up big time, as are the tight ends like Alize Mack, Cole Kmet and Nic Weishar. But the biggest question mark facing the Irish offense this year is at the QB position.
Brandon Wimbush is an accomplished runner (carrying the ball 141 times for 803 yards and 14 TDs) but the main job of the QB is to throw the ball and that is an area where Wimbush is severely lacking. Last season he completed 136 out of 275 passes for 1,870 yards and 16 TDs against 6 INTs. For the starting QB at Notre Dame to complete less than 50% of his passes is a major cause for concern. And already the whispers of a QB battle with Ian Book (who played well when called upon last season) are flying around.
The video out of fall camp has done little to quiet that, as Wimbush is still one-hopping screen passes to the receivers or throwing it a mile over their heads. But the hope is that with a full year as a starter under his belt (and another year to work with former ND quarterback and current QB coach Tommy Rees) that Wimbush can become is steady passing QB in addition to having an electric set of wheels.
Notre Dame’ schedule is a tough one this year, as it is every year. The usual suspects are all on there: Stanford, USC, Navy as well as frequent opponents Pitt and Syracuse. And the opener against Michigan is a blockbuster for sure. But there’s also intriguing games on there as well: a second straight year with a home game against an SEC team (fellow academic powerhouse Vanderbilt) and trips to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech (and the asylum that is Lane Stadium).
The matchup on Senior Day against Florida State is also an interesting one but probably won’t be as big of a deal as the last time the teams met in 2014. But there is one glaring problem with this schedule. It’s not too easy or too difficult in terms of the quality of the teams being played, it’s the location of the games in the back half.
This is where Notre Dame’s Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s greedy pursuit of as much cash as he can get his hands on directly hurts the team on the field. Following the game against Pitt on October 13th, Notre Dame plays one of their last five games at home. They have to travel to San Diego to play Navy, the go to Chicago to play Northwestern, then come home for Florida State, then fly to NYC to play Syracuse (originally a home that that Captain Jack voluntarily gave up as part of the stupid Shamrock Series, which I’ve already addressed on this site) then all the way out to LA for the season finale against USC.
That’s a lot of miles to rack up at the end of a long season. And another ugly hallmark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is November collapses (his November record at Notre Dame is just 19-13, with only one winning November record in the last four seasons). But as long as the cash keeps flowing in, Captain Jack is perfectly willing to let it exacerbate Notre Dame’s November struggles.
2018 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Schedule
9/1 – Notre Dame vs. Michigan
9/8 – Notre Dame vs. Ball State
9/15 – Notre Dame vs. Vanderbilt
9/22 – Notre Dame @ Wake Forest
9/29 – Notre Dame vs. Stanford
10/6 – Notre Dame @ Virginia Tech
10/13 – Notre Dame vs. Pitt
10/27 – Notre Dame vs. Navy*
11/3 – Notre Dame @ Northwestern
11/10 – Notre Dame vs. Florida State
11/17 – Notre Dame vs. Syracuse*
11/24 – Notre Dame @ USC
*denotes game played at neutral site
All in all, it’s tough to say what happens with this Irish team. They lose a lot on offense but should have a stellar defense. There’s a lot of potentially big games on this schedule and there’s some easy wins (at least on paper). I can see Notre Dame going 11-1 but I can also very easily see them going 7-5. That means that the reality is somewhere in the middle at 8-4 or 9-3.
Which leaves Brian Kelly in the exact same spot that he’s been in since he set foot in South Bend: not good enough to win anything of importance (and sorry the Sun Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl, the Music City Bowl and the Citrus Bowl are not really important) but not bad enough to force a change. It’s worth noting that every coach in Notre Dame history that has been the top man as long as Brian Kelly, has won a national title.
Kelly has coached more games than any other Notre Dame coach who hasn’t won a title. It’s been 30 years since Notre Dame won a national championship. Is this the year?