I wasn’t the only one who thought Notre Dame would be good. I’ll take solace in that.
That Clemson's Dabo Swinney won the AP's Coach of the Year Award made sense — he did, after all, lead the Tigers to the national title game. That Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Houston's Tom Herman, and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops got more votes than Brian Kelly was fine. They did great jobs.
Kelly deserved more votes than the one of 60 he received. His squad took on more adversity than almost any other and handled it with aplomb.
So how does he follow up? Notre Dame returns just enough talent to talk yourself into the Fighting Irish but has just enough "ifs" to give you pause.
A funny thing happens when you predict that a blue blood is going to do well: you get called “typical media.” You get called lazy.
As a fan of a school outside of the blue bloods club, I get it.
But when I said things like, “With only one projected top-15 opponent on the schedule, thanks to projected regression for Stanford and Michigan State, the Irish could follow last year's ‘only lose to top-10 teams’ recipe into the Playoff,” “There isn't a sure loss on the schedule,” “I'm not going to doubt Kelly after last year,” and “I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five,” I like to think I had logic on my side.
Notre Dame returned two potentially awesome quarterbacks, a couple of intriguing running backs, and front-seven talent. There was turnover in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, and the secondary would get thumped by the combination of graduation and preseason attrition. There were reasons to doubt, but the upside was obvious.
Notre Dame is 2-5. Kelly’s Fighting Irish were projected 11th in S&P+ and currently rank 54th. Projected to win nine games about two months ago, they have about a 10 percent chance of reaching bowl eligibility.
Where did it all go wrong for Notre Dame this year?
1. Five one-possession finishes, five losses.
Here’s one more line from my 2016 preview: “Five Notre Dame contests are projected to finish with a one-possession margin. Operating in close games will be critical.”
In 2015, the Irish suffered bad turnovers luck and more than their fair share of injuries but operated well in tight quarters. They went 4-2 in games decided by one possession, and one of the two they lost was to national runner-up Clemson on the road in a monsoon.
Close results are partially random, but Notre Dame’s record wasn’t inflated by winning coin tosses. The Irish’s second-order win total was 10, equal to their actual wins. They were a legitimate top-10 team with top-10 execution.
Notre Dame is worse than expected this year; that much is obvious. But the Irish haven’t necessarily been “2-5” bad. In-game win expectancy says, based on the stats of the game, they would have beaten Duke 62 percent of the time and Stanford 53 percent of the time. They lost both. They had a fighter’s chance against Michigan State (22 percent), Texas (21 percent), and NC State (13 percent), and lost to all three.
Notre Dame’s second-order win total suggests this should be a 4-3 team, not a 2-5 team. That’s still worse than expected, but it defines the terms a little more clearly. With better luck, the Irish would only be disappointing, not severely disappointing.
Of course, with worse luck, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey would have played on Saturday, and Notre Dame might have lost by a lot more than seven points.
2. The complaints start on defense, obviously.
Notre Dame’s defensive percentile performances tell a pretty clear story. They were in the 22nd percentile against Texas, 20th against Michigan State, and 20th against Duke. That’s enough to get your defensive coordinator fired.
The numbers have gotten confused in recent weeks. The Irish defense was awesome in slowing down a strong NC State offense, but it got significant help from Hurricane Matthew. (ND ranks 39th in Def. S&P+; remove that game, and they rank 72nd.) Meanwhile, it looked decent against a McCaffrey-less Stanford.
The defense was the primary reason for concern heading into the season. VanGorder’s reputation for complicated looks didn’t connect with the personnel. While Notre Dame was reasonably efficient defensively in 2015, the Irish gave up quite a few big plays.
The losses in the secondary were every bit as costly as feared. In 2015, Notre Dame ranked 39th in Passing S&P+; opponents found that running the ball was the path of least resistance. This year, despite the artificial boost from the NC State game, the Irish rank 105th in Passing S&P+. Opponents’ passer rating has increased from 124 to 136.6 (141.4 without the NC State game). Completion rate has risen from 55 to 61 percent. And this is despite a downgrade in competition.
Turns out, when you lose five of your top six defensive backs to graduation or suspension/dismissal, you might run into problems. And when your run defense doesn’t really improve — it’s still inefficient, though it has limited big plays a little better — that’s a problem.
3. The panic, meanwhile, has moved to the other side of the ball.
DeShone Kizer was having a fantastic season before the NC State game. Through five contests, he boasted a passer rating of 175.4.
Kizer was asked to throw 26 times in miserable conditions in Raleigh, however, and completed only nine for 54 yards.
The funk continued. He was dreadful against Stanford, completing 14 of 26 passes for 154 yards, throwing two picks, and taking three sacks.
Kizer was 6-of-16 when Kelly benched him in favor of Malik Zaire, with Notre Dame up 10-7 in the third quarter. Zaire's three drives produced two three-and-outs and a safety (via high snap). Kizer came back in and drove the Irish 61 yards before stalling out at the Stanford 14 as the game ended.
Again removing NC State from the equation (honestly, there’s reason for me to just erase that game from the ledger), Notre Dame would rank 26th in Off. S&P+. It hasn’t been the problem this year. But Kelly’s juggling between Kizer and Zaire has now played a role in two losses: Texas and Stanford.
4. Special teams has even cratered this year. Notre Dame has fallen from 46th to 83rd in Special Teams S&P+.
Justin Yoon has already missed more under-40 field goals than he did last year, and the Irish are one of only 11 teams to have already allowed at least three punt returns of 30-plus yards.
You can spin this all as a temporary glitch ...
Albeit with help from weather and injury, the defense has allowed only 27 points in the last two weeks.
Only three of the top 10 tacklers are seniors. Four are freshmen and sophomores. On offense, all five starting linemen are scheduled to return in 2017, and both leading rusher Josh Allen and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown are sophomores.
And while every decision Kelly has made regarding his quarterback controversy this year has backfired, it’s not like his logic has never worked before.
5. ... but Kelly’s panic-benching of Kizer was telling. He might be freaking out, and the schedule is not going to let up.
After a bye, the Irish host Miami, which boasts the kind of relentless pass rush that could give Kizer trouble. In back-to-back weeks, the Irish defense must take on Miami’s aggressive passing game, then Navy’s nick-you-to-death option. And after facing another option team, Army, the Irish wrap up with two opponents, Virginia Tech and USC, that are in the S&P+ top 25.
I hate speculating about firings before at least November. We wait nine damn months for games, then we change the subject to hot seats.
But Notre Dame currently has a one percent chance of finishing 7-5 and a five percent chance of finishing 2-10. The Irish are staring 4-8 in the face after ranking 10th in the country.
Kelly is not the easiest person to work for/with, and it’s becoming difficult not to speculate about whether his future in South Bend.