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Rebuilding Notre Dame Football: 5 Years Later, Part I

What kind of progress have we seen on the field since 2010?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

A while back I wrote a 4-part series titled, "The Unofficial Guide to Rebuilding Notre Dame Football" that was an expansive effort to cover some very high level issues with the Irish.


In that series I discussed what needed to be fixed and exactly what it means to rebuild. Within those talks I brought up several more issues: The death of tradition, the changes to college football & campus, how long Brian Kelly should be allowed to rebuild, the power of not sucking, Notre Dame as an attractive job destination, changing expectations, the role of university leadership, and the blowback if Kelly is ultimately deemed a failure.

That was three and a half years ago at a time when the arrow was just barely pointing up for Notre Dame following a blown second half lead in the bowl game against Florida State to cap off back-to-back 8-5 seasons.

In that spring this was a Notre Dame program still reeling from losses to Navy, Tulsa, South Florida, and 2 straight direct shots to the cajones courtesy of Michigan. What's more, it was the first time in a long time that a Brian Kelly team didn't improve upon its record from one year to the next.

Then a 12-0 regular season exploded Notre Dame's stock only to see a pitiful effort in the National Championship Game, plus a subsequent 17-9 two-year run, throw plenty of rain on an Irish program's parade that briefly looked it was turning a corner and rediscovering new glory.

As Brian Kelly becomes the first Notre Dame coach in a quarter century to enter his 6th season I thought it was a good time to revisit the Guide to Rebuilding. As part of the Guide I included 10 Keys to Rebuilding as signposts to improvement and success. Now I'm going to gauge how well Notre Dame has done in these categories over the last 5 years, starting today with Part I:

*All rankings according to the AP Poll

Blow Out More Teams: D+

One of the more obvious factors holding Notre Dame back from becoming a top program is the inability to put the hammer down on opponents on a consistent basis. For Kelly, there's been just 14 wins of at least 20 points in a 5-year span--or not even 3 per year.

Worse still, only 6 of those wins came against Power 5 opponents.

Ranked Wins 1

To put that into perspective and see where the bar is set Alabama, Baylor, Ohio State, and Oregon combined for 19 blowout wins over Power 5 opponents last year alone. Meanwhile, TCU defeated 10 Power 5 teams last year by an average of 26.8 points per game.

While the Irish under Brian Kelly you can look forward to just over 1 nice blowout of a Power 5 Team each season, during the Lou Holtz era you got 30 such wins in 11 seasons--or almost 3 every single year.

Within reason I count 13 games under Kelly that had blowout potential against mediocre to bad opponents: Purdue (2010, 2012-14), Pitt (2010-12), BC (2010-12), Wake Forest (2011), Rutgers (2013), and Syracuse (2014). To go 0-13 on blowouts, with a margin of victory of just 9.1 points per game, against that collection has severely hampered Notre Dame's ability to develop into a top tier program.

A grade of D+ is fair because the previous 3 coaches before Kelly picked up 20 blowouts against Power 5 teams in 13 seasons. To his credit, Weis was able to notch 9 blowouts in 5 seasons with 6 coming in his first 2 seasons.

Beat More Ranked Teams: B

Remember how exciting the beginning of 2005 was when the Irish beat 3 ranked teams in Pitt, Michigan, and Purdue? It was all down hill from there, my friends.

You have to give Brian Kelly credit as he's picked the program up from the doldrums and started to win games against ranked foes again.

Ranked Wins 2

The improvements under Kelly are even more apparent when you look at the records against teams that finished the season ranked:

  • Kelly: 7-14
  • Weis: 1-12
  • Willingham: 8-9
  • Davie: 5-14
  • Holtz: 30-23-2
  • Faust: 4-17

Yes, all of those 2005 wins fell off as none of the aforementioned teams finished ranked. Charlie Weis was the coach at Notre Dame for 5 seasons and beat one ranked team--Penn State in 2006 who finished 24th in the AP.

Willingham's record here has always blown my mind, as has the fact that he beat 3 finishing ranked teams during his final season in South Bend. Or how about the fact that Willingham faced final ranked teams in 45.9% of his games? Whereas Charlie Weis faced the easiest ND schedules stretching back to the 60's with just 20.9% of his games against ranked opponents.

While there has been improvement under Kelly losing 2 out of 3 matchups here isn't a great long-term strategy. But if you were inclined to defend Kelly a bit he did basically defeat FSU last year and both the Utah (2010) and LSU (2014) victories felt very much like big wins against ranked opponents even though both the Utes (26th) and Tigers (31st) ended up just outside the AP rankings.

If that pass interference isn't called in Tallahassee the Irish would be--even with last November's collapse--7-6 against teams that finished ranked since 2012. That's pretty encouraging all things considered.

Decrease Blowout Losses & Bad Losses: B

Someone who didn't understand the full story with Tyrone Willingham at this point might be wondering why he was fired after just 3 years. You're about to find out why, and also why in general things went into a huge funk after Lou Holtz left town.

First, here are the losses by coach to unranked teams at the time of the game:

  • Kelly: 11
  • Weis: 14
  • Willingham: 8
  • Davie: 10
  • Holtz: 10
  • Faust: 12

Even though 2007 drives up the average (5 losses) we're talking about 2.38 losses to unranked teams PER SEASON for an 18-year period since Holtz left. It's truly vomit inducing.

So wait, how does Kelly earn a grade of B when he's carrying over 2 losses per year against unranked teams?

Unranked Losses

When you look at the final rankings Kelly has been lucky (not sure this is the appropriate word but you get the point) that a few of his 'bad' losses in this category really didn't turn out so bad.

Of the 11 unranked losses at the time of the game, 6 of them (Michigan State 2010, Tulsa 2010, Michigan 2011, USC 2011, Louisville 2014, USC 2014) ended up coming against teams who finished inside the Top 25.

Add in the Michigan 2013 loss (the only one under Kelly to a ranked team that ended up unranked) and he's sitting with 6 final unranked losses through 5 seasons: Michigan 2010, Navy 2010, South Florida 2011, Pitt 2013, and Northwestern 2014.

That's not elite (Holtz is waving hello with only 1 unranked loss from 1988-93) but it's progress in terms of rebuilding and miles better than Davie, Willingham, and Weis who combined for 34 such losses over a 13-year period. Imagine Kelly coaching at Notre Dame through 2022 and losing 28 more games to final unranked teams. This is how bad things were before he showed up. That'd be almost a decade of losing 3, and sometimes 4 games, to unranked teams every single year just to get to the Bob/Ty/Charlie average.

Looking at things from a national perspective Alabama, Oregon, FSU, Stanford, and Ohio State have the best overall winning percentages since Kelly has been at Notre Dame. The Tide have yet to lose to an unranked team since 2010, the Ducks have done it only once, the Seminoles 4 times, the Cardinal 3 times, and the Buckeyes 5 times--the latter 4 coming in OSU's transitional 2011 season.

Of course, unranked losses don't tell the whole story. We need to look at losing by lots of points too. Here are the losses by 15+ points for each coach:

  • Kelly: 5
  • Weis: 11
  • Willingham: 9
  • Davie: 8
  • Holtz: 9
  • Faust: 7

Again, Kelly has cut these losses in half from his predecessors and is much closer to Holtz' average. Things were going really well here for Kelly with no such losses in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 regular seasons but the Alabama National Championship and 2 losses (ASU & USC) last year are fresh in our minds.

Let's not forget that Willingham and Weis together lost 9 games by at least 30 points. The season finale against USC last fall is the only such loss for Kelly.

Avoid Losing Seasons: B+

In the 4-part Guide to Rebuilding I talked a lot about this topic.

The Irish put together 7 campaigns at or below .500 during the regular season from 1997 to 2009. Every other year on average taking a huge step back as a program. Plus, Notre Dame was a 9-point comeback in the 4th quarter in the '97 finale at Hawaii away from making that 8 seasons at .500 or worse.

The bleeding simply had to stop and Kelly has achieved that goal. As long as Notre Dame continued back sliding every other season the job in South Bend would not be that attractive to the top talent in the country. And the further the seasons crawled along the worse it would have got for Notre Dame.

This stability has been huge. Now we've got other coaches thinking, "Okay it's possible to take that job and not fall into a pit after a year and be on the hot seat." This is what I mean what I talk about altering expectations. No one is really thrilled with 8-5 or 9-4 seasons but avoiding losing seasons is an important step to rebuilding this program.

Now, the question becomes whether Kelly can finish his career at Notre Dame getting other coaches to think, "Okay it's possible to put together some 10+ win seasons and fight for a championship."


Check out Part 2 soon when we grade the other 6 Keys to Rebuilding with more of a focus on off-field issues.