Marcus Freeman’s sophomore campaign as the head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is officially in the books.
In his second year at the helm, Freeman led the program to a 10-3 outcome, including a Sun Bowl victory over Oregon State. The Irish hit some rough patches late in the season and didn’t break into the CFP in 2023 but there are some strong signs for success in 2024. There’s a bunch to dissect and project during the offseason and I think comparing Coach Freeman’s first two seasons with recent, new head coaches (going back to Dan Devine) is an interesting angle.
Final Record and Wins
2nd Season Record
Freeman ties with Charlie Weis for the best record (0.77) in the second year leading the program. In general, recent coaches ranged between 0.60 and 0.77 to close out their second seasons. The notable exception was Ty Willingham who closed out with a 0.42 season.
In terms of final record and wins during the 1st two seasons, Dan Devine, Charlie Weis and Marcus Freeman are the most comparable. The three coaches had strong starts that got marginally better in their sophomore seasons. Gerry Faust, Lou Holtz and Bob Davie all followed very similar growth trajectories in their 1st two outings. Tyrone Willingham is the outlier with a marked decrease in performance between year one and year two. Brian Kelly remained the same, closing out both seasons 8-5.
All of the recent head coaches had solid, positive point differentials in their first season. Weis sits on the top of the list with +146 point differential for the season and Freeman comes in second the list with a +114 point differential. Overall they ranged from +35 to +146.
The point differentials in the coaches’ second season were a little more varied. Overall, they ranged from -72 to +302. The -72 differential represents Willingham’s highly troubled second season. Freeman sits at the top of the group for this metric with a +302 point differential in his sophomore season.
Looking at things in terms of point differentials also shows how scoring in general has trended upwards in recent decades. The primary reason for Marcus Freeman’s massive point differential in the second season was because the team tallied up 509 total points, the highest for any year in this specific dataset. There are other factors that arguably contribute (i.e. strength of schedule during the season’s first half) but overall scoring for both ND and opponents has been consistently trending upwards.
Thanks to the rapid reshaping of the college football ecosystem over the last couple decades, bowl game berths and victories don’t mean anywhere near as much as they used to when it comes down to evaluating head coaches. But for me, they’re still important.
All of the Irish’s recent head coaches had at least one bowl game appearance in their 1st two seasons except for Gerry Faust. Marcus Freeman is grouped with Bob Davie, Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly for head coaches that appeared in bowl games during their first and second seasons.
Dan Devine, Brian Kelly and Marcus Freeman are the three recent head coaches that won a bowl game in their 1st two seasons. Freeman stands out for having claimed bowl victories in both of his appearances.
Bowl Game Details
The Gator Bowl and the Sun Bowl were frequent stops for new head coaches. Dan Devine, Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Marcus Freeman all appeared in the Gator Bowl. Devine and Freeman walked away with victories.
Brian Kelly and Marcus Freeman appeared in the Sun Bowl, both walking away with wins.
Looking back on Notre Dame football head coaches in their 1st two season reveals a lot. One of the most relevant things is probably that although the 2022 and 2023 seasons weren’t the most stable, in the large scheme of things Freeman appears to be in heading in a very good direction. This offseason will play a crucial role in determining how Coach Freeman will ultimately be viewed in program history. Lets’ hope that it’s an exceptional one.
Cheers and Go Irish!!