Yeah, yeah, I know, you've heard this all before - probably as recently as a year ago, when many ND bloggers made the same case I'm going to make now, that 2014 was to be the key year in the Brian Kelly era. Everett Golson was back, ND had loads of talent, and the Irish offense was finally going to hum in full.
That was before. Before the Frozen 5, before a rash of injuries decimated the defense and before the Irish went through the November from hell, including a first-half collapse at Arizona State, a ludicrous loss to Northwestern and a thorough pantsing at the hands of rival USC.
Now, it's clear. With 18 returning starters from last season, plus the likely return of KeiVarae Russell and the possible return of Ishaq Williams, the year Kelly has been pointing to has arrived. If Kelly is going to go in the books as a successful ND coach, it's likely that this year is going to be a key reason why. That's not to say he's on the hot seat — A.D. Jack Swarbrick famously said he's on "the coldest seat in America" — but we should learn, beyond doubt, whether Kelly has the goods this year.
Let's run down five of the reasons many Irish fans are asking "If not now, when?" with respect to reaching the College Football Playoff:
#1: The Talent
I already mentioned the 18 returning starters. Despite the transfer of Everett Golson to Florida State and the suspension of Greg Bryant for the first 4 games, the Irish enter this year with as much talent across the board as they've had in many years. Russell is an All-American cornerback. Junior Tarean Folston is a reliable, occasionally explosive running back. Ronnie Stanley, whose return was an unexpected boon to ND, enters the season as probably the most highly-touted offensive lineman in the country and a likely top 15 pick in next spring's NFL draft. Will Fuller is maybe the best returning wideout in the country. Someone in Notre Dame's crop of ubertalented tight ends is almost certain to step up and inherit the legacy of Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Jaylon Smith is still doing Jaylon Smith things. Joe Schmidt is back from his broken leg, and Jarrett Grace returns from his horrible leg injury suffered in the 2013 Arizona State game. Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell headline a deep and experienced defensive line. Max Redfield, Cole Luke and Elijah Shumate — all experienced, all talented — join Russell in the secondary.
ND isn't just experienced, and not just deep. They're flush with as much highly-recruited and/or well-developed talent in all areas of the field as they've seen since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines. (This says more about who ND has chosen to roam their sidelines since then than anything else, but we'll skip that part.) This is a team that has the horses to compete with anyone. Which brings us to:
#2: The Schedule
(In case you don't know it off the top of your head — and why don't you, dang it? — it's Texas, @Virginia, Georgia Tech, UMass, @Clemson, Navy, USC, Bye Week, @Temple, @Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College [that one's at Fenway] and @Stanford.)
It's not perfect. (WHY do we have to play USC right after Navy? WHY, GOD?) However, you won't find many Irish schedules more conducive to a title run. There's no team on ND's schedule that can match the Irish on paper, except perhaps USC, which is a home game, albeit after Navy (WHY, GOD?). ND gets Texas at home and early, before the Longhorns potentially figure things out. They get UMass, a layup game, the week after their other battle with an option team (Georgia Tech). They get Clemson after UMass, so if all goes well they will be rested for their biggest road test of the year. They get Stanford at the end after a lineup of games that should hardly scare a team with title aspirations (@Temple, @Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College), meaning they should be well-prepared.
It's not without challenges, and without a conference title game, ND probably can't afford to lose a game without getting a lot of help if they want to reach the top 4. But the latter is going to be true every year, and Kelly and his staff couldn't have asked for a much more manageable slate.
#3: The New Quarterback
Breaking in a guy at quarterback with as little game experience as Malik Zaire has isn't supposed to happen in the middle of make-or-break seasons. Like the schedule, it's not ideal. But by all accounts, Zaire has something you can't teach: The 'it' factor.
Zaire's leadership and on-field demeanor is trumpeted in any story that's written about him. We won't know for certain until we see it, of course, but this is a guy whose confidence should be able to help him bounce back from mistakes, not something we could always say about Golson. This is a guy who can inspire teammates in a big spot. This is a guy who — dare I say it? — might even be able to handle the coaching of Kelly, a guy whose coaching style has proven too much for pretty much every Irish QB not named Rees. Someone as mentally tough as Zaire appears to be could prove the perfect guy to mesh with the demanding Kelly.
And while Zaire doesn't have a ton of experience, it's not like he has no talent. He was a sought-after recruit, with offers from Alabama and Ohio State among others. And it's not like he hasn't seen good players. He's gone up against USC and LSU defenders. He's seen some major NFL-type guys on D, and he's come out looking alright. With a full spring and summer of work, maybe he can come out looking better. And ND isn't a stranger to success with an inexperienced QB. The only other time Kelly entered a Notre Dame season playing a guy without relevant regular-season experience under center, the Irish started 12-0. We know it can happen.
#4: The Unpredictability (Hopefully)
Kelly's offense has been fairly predictable at times while at ND. There have been exceptions — Kelly played FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher like a fiddle with many of his calls in Tallahassee last October, a huge reason ND had a chance to win the game late — but the more obsessive among us can sometimes guess what the Irish are going to do after seeing the formation at the line of scrimmage.
This may well be a stab in the dark, but I wonder if that could change this year. In addition to Zaire, whose starting at QB should tweak the ND playbook a bit, the Irish have a new quarterbacks coach/sort of offensive coordinator in Mike Sanford, one of the most sought-after minds of the off-season. Kelly's on record saying Sanford will hopefully take the lead with ND's offensive playcalling in a year, but that doesn't mean he can't have an effect in 2015. Between Sanford and fellow new ND offensive position coach Autry Denson, two guys that have never worked under Kelly before, maybe we'll see a spark and some different ideas will result. Maybe we'll even see one of those new ideas on a big call in a big spot.
#5: There Are No Excuses
There has always been shelter for ND fans, and Kelly fans (these are not always the same thing, believe me), to shield the coach from major criticism. When the first two years didn't go great, it was excusable because Kelly didn't have his players yet and he had to clear out some of the culture of entitlement that had built up under predecessor Charlie Weis. 2012 didn't require an excuse because it went great. When 2013 didn't go well, Golson had been suspended in May and the Irish had to go back to Rees, which left the Irish offense playing with an arm tied behind its back. When 2014 collapsed down the stretch, it was easy to chalk it up to the spate of injuries combined with the absence of the Frozen 5.
Pending the rest of the summer (Lord knows, Irish fans have learned not to count any chickens), there don't project to be any such excuses now. There's enough talent to overcome a relatively normal amount of injuries. No one, yet, has been suspended for academic reasons (knocking furiously on wood here). The schedule lines up as well as one could reasonably hope. The team has a leader at QB that they can look up to. It's now, finally, fair to ask of Kelly, "If not now, when?"
Here's hoping we never need an answer.