There's a lot of recapping and general knowledge stuff die-harders will already know in the first two sections of this, so go ahead and Control+F your way to "Predictions" if you'd like to skip it. I won't be offended, we're all busy people and this is almost comically long.
The Road So Far...
It has been just under twenty-one months since Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly as head coach, replacing Charlie Weis after five years of football that went from great to horrific to perhaps the worst description of them all: depressingly average. Along with Weis left two of the most prolific offensive players in Notre Dame history, Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, both chosen in the second round of the NFL draft.
For a coach who was comfortable going through starting quarterbacks like they were a pitching rotation, Kelly really only had one choice: Dayne Crist. Crist was Clausen's backup in 2009 and had logged a respectable amount of playing time against Purdue and Washington State before a leg injury ended his season Halloween weekend. With his main rivals consisting of walk-ons and freshmen, Crist was locked in at starting quarterback for Kelly's inaugural campaign.
Going into last season, I wrote that I just wanted the Irish to be better in November than they were in September, a simple concept that had eluded the last two Weis teams that went 1-8 after Halloween in regular season contests. The season started off promisingly enough, with a workman-like effort stifling Purdue, but then things started feeling very familiar: back-to-back stomach punch games against the Michigan schools, followed by a comfortable Stanford victory where the Cardinal were able to convert third-and-longs at will.
Notre Dame rallied to get back to 3-3 by taking care of Boston College and Pitt, but the season cratered in late October. There was an embarrassing, no-show loss to Navy, followed by the death of student videographer Declan Sullivan at practice. With the weight of that tragedy hanging over the entire Notre Dame family, Crist suffered another injury against Tulsa, his one of many accrued by Irish starters over a particularly unlucky fortnight. In one of the weirdest games you'll ever see, with scores on a hook-and-ladder, punt return, interception return and blocked extra point, Notre Dame lost after a late interception in the endzone.
[ TULSA RANT ASIDE: I encourage you to just move along, because I'm going to get on my favorite soapbox of them all and talk about the pick at the end of the Tulsa game. You don't want to read this, you've been warned.
All right, so at the end of the Tulsa game, Brian Kelly had Tommy Rees throw deep for Mike Floyd when the Irish were within field goal range and a kick from winning the game. This is a questionable decision, but a somewhat defensible one. Tulsa had already blocked a kick earlier in the game, Rees had been over-throwing his misses, Mike Floyd is very good at football and Tulsa's secondary was one of the worst in the nation. Kelly took a shot on second down, it was picked off and Notre Dame lost, leading to thousands of garments being rended.
Again, this is a questionable decision. Rees was a freshman, the Irish were in field goal range and they could have ran it a couple times and kicked it. However, this was not THE WORST DECISION IN FOOTBALL HISTORY as some Notre Dame fans would like you to believe it is. Anyone who thinks this is some rare occurrence - oh, for shame, how did Brian Kelly come to call such a play?! - does not watch enough football. This happens all the time. A team is in field goal range, needing a field goal to tie or win, and they take a shot to the end zone. Sometimes it's caught for a touchdown, sometimes it's incomplete, sometimes it's an interception. This happens all of the time. Just pay attention to football this year and you will probably see it once a week in close games.
So you're allowed to say you disagree with the call, that's absolutely acceptable. What you cannot do - well, you can, I just won't respect you - is claim that Tommy Rees throwing for the end zone when a non-sure thing field goal would win it is some never-before-seen call in a football game, then use that theory to try to paint Brian Kelly as some crazed riverboat gambler who can't be trusted. He took a shot, it didn't work, we all moved on and survived. Now stop bringing it up to support any play calls you don't like this season. THERE WILL BE PLAY CALLS YOU DON'T LIKE THIS SEASON, AND EVERY SEASON AFTER THAT, NO MATTER WHO IS COACH. Deal with it.]
At that point, even the staunchest believers were questioning their faith. The starting backfield from the opener were both gone for the season, with Armando Allen joining Crist on the sidelines, along with future NFL tight end Kyle Rudolph and starting nose tackle Ian Williams. The Irish were 4-5, and a ranked Utah squad was coming to South Bend. Kelly was being taken from pillar to pole, criticized for the decision to have Rees throw at the end of the Tulsa game, for his role in the Sullivan accident and for his choice of defensive coordinator, among a host of other things. There was no joy in South Bend, and when the Utes took a 3-0 lead after a failed fourth down attempt by Kelly, all the local business started ordering extra pitchforks and torches.
But a funny thing happened on the way to bowl ineligibility, as an Irish team that had shown so much fight against Tulsa started to put it together. Bob Blanton made one of the biggest plays of the last few years, blocking and returning a punt for a touchdown. Tommy Rees, making his first career start, connected for three touchdown passes and Notre Dame won on senior day for the first time since 2007, dominating Utah 28-3. The students flooded the field, and the word of the day was "catharsis."
The next weekend was a trip to Yankee Stadium to face Army and secure bowl eligibility. On a perfect autumn weekend in New York, the Irish took care of business in the green jerseys, avenging some option demons that had cursed the team against Navy and earning a trip to the postseason. That would have taken some of the pressure off of the season finale if the final game hadn't included a trip to Southern Cal.
Instead of Matt Barkley vs. Dayne Crist, we got Rees vs. Mitch Mustain, battling it out in a rare Los Angeles downpour. Notre Dame's defense reached its peak against the Trojans, overcoming a poor game from Rees to continually stop Lane Kiffin's offense. After blowing a halftime lead, the Irish offense stepped up, going on a long drive punctuated by a Robert Hughes touchdown. The Trojans would have escaped the Coliseum with victory, but the deep ball Mustain threw to a wide-open Ronald Johnson was dropped. A few passes later, Mustain lobbed one in the direction of Harrison Smith, who was slightly more sure-handed. After eight long, ugly years, Notre Dame ended the USC winning streak.
The next few weeks almost seem like a blur now. There was a Miami team that wanted to be anywhere else in the world but El Paso getting their asses handed to them on New Years Eve. There were ridiculous recruiting twists and turns, as Aaron Lynch, Jordan Prestwood and Stephon Tuitt all considering going elsewhere - with Prestwood actually attending Florida State for a semester - before ending up in South Bend. Despite those swerves, nothing topped the now mythic pursuit of Ishaq Williams, with Bob Diaco showing up in Brooklyn at 4:30 in the morning to meet with the star defender before he could leave for a visit to Penn State. Instead of going to visit State College, Williams was on his way to South Bend to early enroll. The guy some Notre Dame fans wanted fired halfway through the season found himself being toasted around the country as the living symbol of Alec Baldwin's Glengarry Glen Ross speech.
The journey the Notre Dame program took from the morning of the Utah game to the early enrollees getting to campus in January seems so improbable Peter Berg would dismiss it as a potential Friday Night Lights storyline. The Irish went from being dead in the water at 4-5 to having a true freshman quarterback lead them to victories in Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium and the Coliseum, in addition to earning their second bowl win since 1993. To build on that momentum, the coaching staff brought in one of the finest defensive classes in recent recruiting history, high-level athletes capable of complementing a veteran defensive unit in ‘11.
Brian Kelly never wavered on his system, and while it would have been nice to have everyone both buy in and master it in September, the goal for year one of a new coach was checked off of the list: Be better at the end of the season than the beginning. It was not easy, and it was certainly not pretty, but the Irish scraped their way to 8-5 using a seemingly endless supply of willing and able backups. Freshmen stepped in and stepped up, and seniors like Brian Smith - guys who had seen the lows of the program in 2007 and dealt with the collapses in '08 and '09 - helped lead the charge to Notre Dame's first perfect November since 2005.
The Irish will not be sneaking up on anyone this season. All of the major polls have them ranked comfortably in the teens, while Phil Steele was kind enough to slot them at number six. The goal this year has changed, with everyone around the program focusing on one thing: making a BCS bowl.
Is that realistic? The Irish were 8-5 in 2010, the same record that Auburn, Stanford and Oklahoma earned in 2009. In addition, this is Brian Kelly's second year with the Irish. The second year of recent big-time coaching hires has been fruitful for the last decade, with Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Gene Chizik and Urban Meyer winning titles in their sophomore campaign. Nick Saban took Alabama from 7-6 to the Sugar Bowl in his second year, while Brian Kelly had Cincinnati in the Orange by the end of year two.
But before the Irish can start worrying about January, they need to focus on September. The last time Notre Dame made it to October with an undefeated record was 2002, and they haven't managed to beat both Michigan and Michigan State in the same season since 2004. That second fact is just so depressing, especially when you factor in the nature of the last two Wolverine victories and the Spartans' fake field goal. While neither game will be easy, with a trip to Ann Arbor for the first night game ever at the Big House and Michigan State being ranked right next to the Irish, a sweep would set the tone for the season.
If the Irish are going to have a special year this season, they'll need the defense to continue making progress like they did at the end of last 2010. You can make a serious case that none of the offenses they faced were very good down the stretch. Utah was disinterested, coming off a shellacking at the hands of TCU and continually shooting themselves in the foot with dumb penalties. Army was Army. Southern Cal was rolling with Mitch Mustain in a downpour. And of course, no team wanted to be at bowl game less than Miami wanted to be in El Paso, wearing the silliest-looking turtlenecks imaginable.
However, you can just as easily make the case that these guys are just going to be really good. In the secondary, there is hardened, experienced talent starting, with Harrison Smith joining fellow seniors Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. If the injury bug decides to bite the Irish corners, things could get very interesting very quickly, as true sophomores Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson are next on the depth chart.
Those concerns don't apply as much to the rest of the defense. Obviously losing a transcendent talent like Manti Te'o would be devastating, but the depth chart around the five-star junior is stacked. There isn't a position in the front seven that doesn't comfortably go two deep, with a healthy mix of seasoned seniors and bright young freshmen ready to get after the quarterback and suffocate opposing rushing attacks. The combined size of the starting linebackers and linemen will essentially be that of an NFL team. If the defense plays at the level it did at the end of last season, the Irish are in good shape. In the much more likely scenario that it improves, with continued coaching, a better understanding of the system and an injection of new talent, the Irish could be in fantastic shape.
On offense, things are going to be a little more tricky. Dayne Crist was named the starter, surprising very few people, but his maintaining that position for the entire season would qualify as an upset. With leg injuries cutting his last two seasons short and the amount of abuse a quarterback takes in Brian Kelly's system, all three of Crist's backups are going to have to be ready. Crist was hot and cold last year, managing to connect on beautiful deep passes while failing to make the simple short throws that extended drives. As much as the deep throws are important, if Crist doesn't make his lay-ups, there will be grumblings from the Irish faithful. The back-up quarterback is always the most popular guy in town, and that adage applies doubly when he's 4-0 as a starter.
Crist will not be without weapons when he steps onto the field against South Florida. Michael Floyd is one of the best receivers in the country, and Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones each have a year of college receiving experience under their belts. (Riddick was a running back his entire life prior to the 2010 season.) Tyler Eifert continues the silly run of quality Irish tight ends, backed up by veteran Mike Ragone (a little banged up going into the season) and promising young prospects Alex Welch and Ben Koyack. Robby Toma is a very able backup at the slot, with John Goodman as the first man in on the outside. Brian Kelly has been almost comically frustrated with the thought of playing Davaris Daniels, but the freshman has all kinds of potential and might work his way into the mix.
Running back, along with corner, is one of the questionable positions on the Irish depth chart. Cierre Wood, a former top prospect who really had a nice end to the season following Armando Allen's injury, is the starter after a dedicated offseason. Behind him is senior bowling ball Jonas Gray, and two true freshmen, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson. While learning pass protections and the playbook are obviously not the easiest things for freshmen, do remember that both Darius Walker and Armando Allen stepped on the field fresh from high school and made an impact. It's obviously not ideal for Wood to go down, but running back is not the worst position to have to turn to some freshmen.
Those running backs will be going behind a very capable offensive line, with four returning starters in Zack Martin, Taylor Dever, Trevor Robinson and Braxston Cave combining for 63 career starts. Filling in for the departing Chris Stewart will be junior Chris Watt, one of the top recruits in his class, and senior Andrew Nuss, who will find himself as the utility man of the line. Sophomore Christian Lombard is available to help on the outside until Tate Nichols gets healthy, while Mike Golic, Jr. backs up the interior positions. Freshmen Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty are already in the mix as back-ups as well, which is either an indictment of Notre Dame's depth or a reason to credit the hard work and skill of those two young men since they got on campus. (Or the more accurate assessment that it's somewhere in the middle.)
Kicking should be solid, with David Ruffer coming off of his near-perfect field goal season and big-legged freshman Kyle Brindza sliding into kickoff duty. Ben Turk will be handling punts, and the electric Theo Riddick will be the main return man on both punts and kickoffs. John Goodman got a lot of flack last year for always calling for fair catch, but rewatching some games, he wasn't exactly turning down a lot of green space. If the return game is going to be an advantage for the Irish, blocking will need to improve across the board.
"We're building something here, detective. We're building it from scratch. All the pieces matter."
So Brian Kelly isn't exactly working from nothing like Cool Lester Smooth was, as Charlie Weis left him a cupboard full of shiny toys, but you can certainly see how he's constructing the foundation for something special. After years of going into big games and seeing opposing linemen dwarf the Irish, the steps Kelly and his staff are taking to beef up across the front are inspiring. If he manages to keep the current verbal commits in the 2012 recruiting class and add them to this year's incredible freshmen haul, the Irish defensive front is going to be as good as any SEC unit in the coming years. When other teams can't run on you and you can get to their quarterback without blitzing, you're in great shape.
As much as teams under second year coaches generally take the leap, it seems like too arduous a task for the Irish to run the table, even though the talent is there. It would only take a few injuries to really hobble the team and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, something I'm not sure we should want as Irish fans. Lean on the defense, get the ball out to the playmakers and let them make things happen. As I try to pick a team to compare the Irish to, I keep coming back to the 2002 Trojans. It was Carroll's second year, and after starting out 2-2 with a couple of close losses, things started to gel. By the end of the season, Carson Palmer had a mastery of the offense, the defense was getting nastier and they ended the season by cleaning the clocks of #25 UCLA, # 7 Notre Dame and #3 Iowa (in the Orange Bowl). They used that success to bring in a great recruiting class that helped serve as the base for their run through the rest of the decade.
Kelly has been clear that the goal for this season is to get to a BCS bowl, and they have the talent to do it. But will they have the luck, both during games and with injuries? No man is wise enough to predict that. Notre Dame will improve on last year's performance, both in record and style points, but I'm not sure they'll have quite enough to get into the BCS. I really and truly feel we're going to know after Week Four, with a 4-0 record meaning an almost certain run to something awesome the way the rest of the schedule shapes up. 3-1 would be promising, while 2-2 would put us fans into the panic mode we've come to understand so well.
Barring Brian Kelly's team getting worse in the following year for the first time since he started coaching in Division I football, we're in for a fun season. There are once-in-a-decade kind of players on both sides of the ball with Floyd and Te'o, and plenty of other exciting talent around them. Much will be made about every tiny decision Kelly makes, but as long as he continues to recruit and improve the foundation of this program like he did in 2010, my complaints will be limited. Notre Dame came a long way in the last twelve months, and some truly terrible events would have to transpire to alter that trajectory in a negative way.
Some specific predictions to make me look dumb come December:
- Michigan is going to win in some grotesquely terrible way that makes the last two years look like walks in the park. I'm guessing a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown as time expires in a tie game. Everyone keeps pointing out all the advantages the Irish have over the Wolverines, but A) They've said that the last two years and B) This is a night game in Ann Arbor, and Hoke is going to have those kids - even the walk-ons starting on defense - jacked. Until Notre Dame beats Michigan, I'm going to assume the worst.
- If the above paragraph works as some sort of reverse jinx, so be it.
- Manti Te'o is going to lose out on a bunch of hardware and accolades to Boston College's Luke Kuechly, who will have gaudy tackle numbers. Sure, most of those tackles will come with the Eagles down three touchdowns in the second half while their opponents just run dive plays to kill the clock, but he's going to rack them up like crazy. I've made my peace with this.
- Tommy Rees will start at least one game. Unless Andrew Hendrix is uber-effective in his change of pace role, I think it's possible we see all four signal-callers on the field this year. I'd love to preserve Everett Golson's redshirt, so I hope Kelly has the willpower to keep him on the sideline. (Guys, I really love Everett Golson, and I can't wait for him to be Notre Dame's quarterback. No disrespect to any of the other QB's on the staff, present and future, but he's basically my ideal video game quarterback come to life, and I'm very excited for that.)
- Theo Riddick will spend a decent amount of time in the backfield, either taking Wildcat snaps or motioning in as tailback a la Percy Harvin. This will open up significant opportunities for Robby Toma, who will take advantage and have a very nice season as the Wes Welker of this offense.
- Everyone will be pleasantly surprised by Cam McDaniel. McDaniel was the Texas 5A Player of the Year, which means he was tearing it up against some very legitimate competition. He's too slight of build to be an every down back, but as a potential change of pace or salt this game away-type of guy? I think we'll be pleased. I'm hoping for a bunch of Irish blowouts this season because we'll get to see Cam and George Atkinson doing some work. (And because that will mean Notre Dame is winning games by a lot of points, which is something I enjoy.)
- Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson end up making contributions in the secondary. Both sophomores, moved from offense to the secondary, have such a great nose for the ball that I think they will transition well into their new roles. Hopefully we don't have to see them a whole lot as the upper classmen in the secondary stay healthy, but when pressed for duty, I like their chances of holding their own. I didn't see enough of Lo Wood last year to have the same thoughts, but since the Irish staff is saying he's further along than Jackson at corner, we might be in better shape than the depth chart hints.
- Harrison Smith is a second team All-American, joining Manti Te'o on most lists. Darius Fleming has a great season but doesn't get any All-American mention since his numbers will be down due to the other pass-rushing weapons around him. Michael Floyd ends up on the second team, unable to jump the preseason hype for Justin Blackmon and Ryan Broyles. Both he and Alshon Jeffery put up monster seasons, but fall behind the two Big XII favorites in most voting.
- Cierre Wood cracks a thousand yards.
- There will be a record for drinking citations set on October 22nd, 2011. No one will drink themselves to death, however, meaning that we get to have future night games.
- Also in the Southern Cal game, a long touchdown for one team will occur due to a defensive back slipping on our terrible grass. Lots of jokes will be made about the grass during the 2005 game, and more importantly, Jack Swarbrick will use this as the final push he needs to put in a hybrid of grass and field turf.
So those are my thoughts. Notre Dame will be right on the border between nine wins and a BCS berth, with anything less qualifying as a disappointment. We will see a lot of really great players, and the program will continue progressing in a positive way. It's not a sexy pick, but I think it's possible. The ceiling is high, but the road is long.