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How Notre Dame went 4-8, and why things will get better in 2017

Get your jokes in now, because the turnaround is likely on its way.

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published May 9 and has since been updated.

We never had a problem with Notre Dame officials, but after the war, some of their fans began driving us crazy. They began writing letters saying that other schools should imitate Notre Dame, not just in winning, but by winning absolutely cleanly and honestly. Sure, who doesn't want to do that? But no one could get players like Frank Leahy could...

Also the fans said that Notre Dame sets an example that other schools could follow if those schools didn't like cheating so much. I really got angry when they started applying that to Purdue, as if we [Purdue] cheated.

Lafayette Journal & Courier sports editor Gordon Graham, Onward to Victory: The Creation of Modern College Sports

One of the things I enjoyed about writing my latest book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time (and hey, if you don’t enjoy your own book, who will?) is how you can trace how perceptions of certain programs changed over time. Notre Dame is the best example.

There are two Notre Dame teams in the book (which, in anti-social fashion, isn’t actually about the best teams at all): the 1924 team that won the Irish’s first Rose Bowl and the 1947 team that is typically called one of the most talented of all time. In between the first and the second team, all of college football began to look at Notre Dame in a completely different light.

The 1924 team was a plucky squad, abused in some stadiums for the school’s Catholic backbone and going out of its way to put a good face forward for both school and religion. Look at these wholesome boys who will pray before the game and help you up after bowling you over!

The 1947 team was, by any account, no less wholesome. But the Irish were the heavyweight champion of the world by this point. Their connections with the Naval academy had helped to allow the school to maintain a high level of talent during World War II, and with loose postwar transfer rules and the name of NOTRE DAME lording over the sport, Frank Leahy was able to amass so much talent in South Bend that third stringers who never saw the field would find success in professional football.

Plus, as with any program or coach who purports to represent more than just football, the Irish brought some pretty irrepressible fans with them as well.

All of this is a long way to say that, even seven decades after that 1947 team and its fans lorded Irish perfection over all the land, when Notre Dame suffers a frustrating season — say, losing a ton of close games on the way to a 4-8 record — fans of other college football teams are going to enjoy it immensely. That’s just how things go.

Fun fact: Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish went 4-8 last season. It really happened. Buy rings if you want. Definitely make posters and memes. Lord knows plenty on this little corner of the Internet have. But don’t expect it to happen twice.

I have long noted how, when you look at a given year’s S&P+ rankings, you can pretty quickly point out the teams that are likely to rise and fall the next year (from a records standpoint) by simply looking at the standout records. My favorite example is 2011, when both 7-6 Texas A&M (eighth in S&P+) and 8-5 Notre Dame (11th) seemed out of place, ranking much higher than their records suggested they should have. The next year, the two teams went a combined 23-3.

It doesn’t always work out in such a clean manner, but the bottom line is, sometimes your record doesn’t match your on-paper quality. That usually rectifies itself quickly.

That Notre Dame went 4-8 last year is certainly unique; it was only the second time since 1963 that the Irish won fewer than five games. The Gerry Faust era of the early-1980s is notorious for its mediocrity, but Faust’s Irish never went worse than 5-6.

That the Irish went 4-8 with a pretty good team is even more remarkable.

Best teams to finish with four or fewer wins (per S&P+), 2005-16:
  1. 2016 Notre Dame (4-8, plus-10.5 S&P+ rating, 26th)
  2. 2007 Washington (4-9, plus-9.8, 26th)
  3. 2013 Florida (4-8, plus-9.7, 33rd)
  4. 2005 Arkansas (4-7, plus-7.5, 33rd)
  5. 2012 Arkansas (4-8, plus-7.4, 39th)
  6. 2009 Virginia (3-9, plus-6.8, 35th)
  7. 2013 TCU (4-8, plus-5.1, 50th)
  8. 2008 Arkansas (4-8, plus-4.8, 41st)
  9. 2005 Washington State (4-7, plus-4.3, 46th)
  10. 2008 Baylor (4-8, plus-4.3, 42nd)

This list is both a warning sign and reason for hope. Of the nine non-Notre Dame teams above, five saw their records improve, sometimes dramatically, the next season.

  • In 2014, TCU’s Gary Patterson made some assistant coach changes, freshened up his offense, and went 12-1.
  • 2009 Arkansas improved to 8-5 in Bobby Petrino’s second year in charge.
  • 2006 Arkansas improved to 10-4.
  • 2014 Florida improved to 7-5.
  • 2006 Washington State improved to 6-6.
  • 2009 Baylor didn’t improve because of a quarterback injury, but 2010 Baylor improved to 7-6, and 2011 Baylor soared.

At the same time, of the seven non-Notre Dame teams on the list that didn’t dump their coaches immediately, four had done so within two years. The bad feelings a season like this engenders are hard to overcome.


2016 in review

2016 Notre Dame statistical profile.

Here’s the most positive spin I can put on last season: Kelly didn’t lose the team. The Fighting Irish stuck together well enough that they continued to lose close games to good teams deep into the season. Sometimes a team collapses; Notre dame did not. In fact, it did the opposite.

  • First 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 60% (~top 50) | Yards per play: ND 6.4, Opp 6.2 (plus-0.2)
  • Next 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 74% (~top 35) | Yards per play: ND 5.6, Opp 4.4 (plus-1.2)
  • Last 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 78% (~top 30) | Yards per play: ND 6.2, Opp 5.6 (plus-0.6)

After a dreadful defensive start, Kelly fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder four games into the season. That he hired him in the first place was a bit of an indictment, but there’s no question the defense improved after the change. The offense, meanwhile, remained mostly steady aside from a monsoon-addled 10-3 loss to NC State.

Notre Dame played at a top-30 level or so for most of the last two-thirds of the season. But the losses continued — by seven points to Stanford, by one point to Navy, by three points to Virginia Tech. The season finished with the first not-so-close loss (45-27 to USC), but even in that game the Irish created more scoring chances and won the field position battle, creating a decent opportunity for a win that didn’t come.

Kelly has had a fascinating relationship with close games at Notre Dame. His Irish lost five of their first seven one-possession finishes, then won 15 of 18. They lost three in a row and won five of six and have now lost eight of nine. Do the Irish have another drastic change in direction left?


Offense

Notre Dame offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Todd Graham has struggled the last couple of seasons as Arizona State head coach; after going 20-7 in 2013-14, he’s gone just 11-14 since. Defensive collapse has been the major cause — ASU ranked 114th in Def. S&P+ in 2016 — but losing assistants hasn’t helped.

Graham has churned out aggressive, speed-happy assistants throughout his career; he employed Chad Morris (now SMU’s head coach) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) long ago at Tulsa, and it’s probably not a coincidence that his ASU offense regressed a bit in 2016 following the departure of longtime assistants Mike Norvell and Chip Long to Memphis. Norvell became head coach, Long became offensive coordinator, and despite losing all-world quarterback Paxton Lynch to the NFL, the Tigers continued to play at a top-40 level offensively last fall.

Long only has the single year of coordinator experience, but you could see how Kelly might be attracted to him as a potential energy booster.

With a pass-first attack, Memphis ranked 46th in Adj. Pace and excelled at creating one-on-one matchups and solo tackle opportunities. A trio of rushers (including two freshmen) combined for 1,838 yards at 5.9 per carry, and the combination of quarterback Riley Ferguson and receiver Anthony Miller combined to connect 95 times for 1,434 yards.

One could see similar numbers from Notre Dame this year. Running back Josh Adams combined decent efficiency (42 percent of carries gaining five-plus yards) with above average explosiveness, junior backup Dexter Williams was a bit all-or-nothing, and four-star freshman C.J. Holmes could be ready to play a small role.

Adams and company will be running behind a well-seasoned line that ranked 18th in Adj. Line Yards and returns five four of last year’s starters. Three of the four have started for two years, and the line could get a boost from young talent in the form of redshirt freshman blue-chippers Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California
Equanimeous St. Brown
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, it’s easy to think that the Brandon Wimbush-to-Equanimeous St. Brown combination could thrive. St. Brown averaged 10.9 yards per target as a first-time No. 1 target, combining big-time efficiency (57 percent success rate) with high-end explosiveness (16.6 yards per catch).

Most of last year’s battery mates — sophomore Kevin Stepherson, junior C.J. Sanders, tight end Durham Smythe — return, as does tight end Alizé Mack, who averaged 10.6 yards per target in 2015 before missing last year because of academics. And if the spring is any indication, four-star sophomores Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool could be ready to play steady roles as well. [Update: Notre Dame also added Cameron Smith, a former 596-yard receiver at Arizona State, as a grad transfer.]

This offense should have all the pieces Long craves for creating mismatches and big plays. Wimbush’s only real experience so far came in going 3-for-5 passing and ripping off a 58-yard touchdown run against UMass in 2015. His athleticism is obvious, and if he’s ready to live up to his blue-chip status, this offense will hum. That’s still an “if” until proven otherwise, though.

UMass v Notre Dame
Brandon Wimbush
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Defense

Notre Dame defensive radar

It’s even easier to see what Kelly saw in Mike Elko. The longtime Dave Clawson assistant produced high-caliber defenses as Bowling Green defensive coordinator (31st in Def. S&P+ in 2012, 52nd in 2013) and found immediate, sustained success following Clawson to Wake Forest. While Wake’s offense hasn’t been good in what feels like decades, the Demon Deacons ranked 28th in Def. S&P+ in 2014 and 22nd in 2016.

With an experienced front seven and an ultra-young secondary, Wake created havoc up front and played things safe in the back. The Deacs also had one of the best red zone defenses in the country, allowing just 3.8 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40).

Elko inherits a defense that was so young last year that it’s still pretty young. He’ll be relying on sophomores in the front (tackles Jerry Tillery and Elijah Taylor, end Daelin Hayes) and back (corners Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr., and Shaun Crawford, safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott). And while there are blue-chippers galore on the roster, few of them reside in the secondary. [Update: Star Navy transfer Alohi Gilman would compete for a starting safety job, if his unique eligibility waiver request went through.]

Still, this was a legitimately strong pass defense in the middle of the season, from when VanGorder was fired until the last two games against Virginia Tech and USC.

  • First 4 games: 64% completion rate, 14.3 yards per completion, 154.2 passer rating
  • Next 6 games: 57% completion rate, 10.8 yards per completion, 110.7 passer rating
  • Last 2 games: 69% completion rate, 11.5 yards per completion, 155.7 passer rating

Granted, that midseason sample includes the monsoon game against NC State and the Army and Navy games, but there’s still obvious potential here, especially the Irish can keep the same first string on the field for a longer period of time. Eleven different DBs averaged at least 0.8 tackles per game last year; only six played in all 12 games. That’s a sign of a rotation that is larger than a coach wanted it to be.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame
Drue Tranquill
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven only has to replace three contributors, but end Isaac Rochell, tackle Jarron Jones, and linebacker James Onwualu were maybe the Irish’s three best havoc guys last year, combining for 29.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, and 10 passes defensed. The linebacking corps is particularly experienced, and between Nyles Morgan, converted safety Drue Tranquill, Greer Martini, and Asmar Bilal, he should have the attackers he needs there.

Firing VanGorder had an immediate effect last year. After allowing 200-plus rushing yards in three of their first four games, the Irish only did so three times in the last eight, and two of those instances were against option-heavy Army and Navy, who combined to pass for just 61 yards.

Even without Rochell, Jones, and Onwualu, this should be a strong front seven. The question is, how quickly can Elko come to trust the secondary? I would expect him to play things conservatively in the back, as he did at Wake.

NCAA Football: Miami at Notre Dame
Nyles Morgan
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams didn’t really help the cause. After ranking 35th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2015, the Irish fell to 80th because of shaky place-kicking range and woeful punt coverage. Tyler Newsome averaged a booming 43.5 yards per punt (26th in FBS), but opponents averaged 15.1 yards per return (123rd).

Ace return man C.J. Sanders was able to make up some of that difference, but if Newsome can avoid outkicking his coverage quite so much, this could theoretically be a top-50 unit even if kicker Justin Yoon’s range doesn’t change much.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Temple 67 15.5 81%
9-Sep Georgia 20 3.8 59%
16-Sep at Boston College 76 14.7 80%
23-Sep at Michigan State 44 7.1 66%
30-Sep Miami (Ohio) 88 23.9 92%
7-Oct at North Carolina 38 5.7 63%
21-Oct USC 7 -4.7 39%
28-Oct N.C. State 27 7.8 67%
4-Nov Wake Forest 64 14.8 80%
11-Nov at Miami 18 -1.3 47%
18-Nov Navy 71 18.3 85%
25-Nov at Stanford 12 -6.3 36%
Projected S&P+ Rk 17
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 24 / 25
Projected wins 8.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 14.3 (9)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 10 / 8
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 0.7
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (58%, 56%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.2 (-3.2)

In terms of trust with the fan base, it’s possible that having such a bad year with such a demonstrably solid team is harder to overcome than a random collapse like, say, 2016 Michigan State’s. Notre Dame lost close games in about every way a team can lose a close game. It’s a new year, and Brian Kelly has two new coordinators with him to right the ship. But until the Irish indeed turn things around, then they remain the absurd underachiever that went 4-8 last year.

Still, a turnaround is realistic at worst and likely at best. Notre Dame dealt with preseason turnover in the defensive backfield and was juggling freshmen and sophomores in the back all year. The Irish encountered setback after setback but were as good in November as they were in September. Kelly brought in an exciting new defensive coordinator and an offensive coordinator with energy to burn.

It’s really easy to talk yourself into a significant Irish bounce back in 2017, in other words, and the numbers have your back if you choose to do so. S&P+ projects Notre Dame 17th in the country, and despite a schedule that features five opponents projected 27th or better (and only one projected worse than 76th), the Irish are the projected favorite in nine games and are expected to win eight on average.

This is all well and good. But it’s hard to forget that Notre Dame was projected 11th, with a likely 9-3 record, last year. The Irish underachieved the rating by a little and the record by a lot. And seasons that are disappointing to this degree are hard to overcome.

I wrote in last year’s preview that, in overcoming quarterback injury and remaining in the Playoff hunt all the way to the end of the year, Brian Kelly had pulled off his best coaching performance in 2015. He followed that up with his worst. His recent performances have flipped as significantly as his close-game fortune. Can they both flip back this fall?

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