Like so many other Notre Dame fans, I have been anxiously waiting for Notre Dame's 2011 football season ever since last year's trouncing of Miami in the Sun Bowl. We're traditionally over-optomistic, and this year is no exception. The Irish are ranked in nearly every poll, and the expectation of a Bowl Championship Series game has been thrown around early and often.
Reading everything I could find online, the headlines have been mostly predictable: Notre Dame's defensive recruiting focus, Michael Floyd's DUI and suspension, and Dayne Crist winning the starting quarterback role, a long-delayed announcement that didn't surprise anyone. Several other writers reminded us of Notre Dame's strong finish to the 2010 season, despite the adversity of injuries, Declan Sullivan's tragic death, and Lizzy Seeburg's suicide following an accusation that one of Notre Dame's players raped her.
What I kept waiting for but never received was an analysis of how Head Coach Brian Kelly's second seasons have turned out in the various programs for which he has coached over the years. If anyone talked about this, I did not see it. But it strikes me as an important consideration for making any sort of predictions for how much Notre Dame will improve this year from last year. So I decided to inquire myself. Here are my findings.
Truthfully, the news wasn't bad, but also not as good as I had hoped. Though his coaching resume is unquestionably impressive, it has traditionally taken Kelly longer than his second season to get his team to the top. (Though it should be noted, he has never had the types of facilities, resources, and support for football that he has now at Notre Dame.) To be clear, when I say by "the top," I mean Division II national championships at Grand Valley State and back-to-back appearances BCS appearances at Cincinnati.
At his first stop, Grand Valley State, Kelly's team finished higher in their conference during his second season as head coach, but they won one less game (although they also played one less game). The best flip of his career between year one and year two occurred at Central Michigan, which was his first Division I head coaching assignment. There, he coached the Chippewas to a 6-5 record in year two, following a 4-7 record during his first year. Finally, at Cincinnati, he led the Bearcats to a one-game improvement from 2007 to 2008, which culminated in a BCS appearance after winning the Big East. (It should be noted that Kelly did coach one game with the 2006 team, but I am considering the 2007 season his first because he was with the team from the start of the season).
So what does this season mean? It may mean disappointment for those Domers out there hoping for a National Championship this quickly. But lest they despair, the trend over Kelly's career is long-term improvement. That much was evident even last season, as the Irish finished well for the first time since arguably the Holtz Era.
So now I know the empirical data. You may be wondering what my heart thinks? I will not jinx the Irish by throwing out an expected win total or a bowl game prediction, but I will say this. I would not want to be South Florida next weekend!