Never underestimate the power of believing your team is doomed to fail.
I wrote that article back in May after a tumultuous spring that left Notre Dame fans with more questions than answers. If I could do it all over again, I’d write the exact same words. At the time, the Irish stared down a brutal schedule with no secondary and a quarterback derby that hinged on, as one revered blogger put it, Brian Kelly learning to ride on rainbows. The implication was not so much that Kelly would need to find a pot of gold in order to be successful, but that, in true Irish fashion, he’d be intercepted before he ever got there.
After all the turmoil of the last decade – the bad bounces, impossible academics and decided schematic advantages – the Irish found themselves in a position nobody ever saw coming: They could actually exceed expectations. And they did.
Indeed, Kelly is deserving of his “Coach of the Year” honors and his success stems directly from the way he handled his quarterback dilemma. After two consecutive 8-5 campaigns, it was a pivotal season long before quarterback Tommy Rees had a run-in with the law in the spring. Kelly could’ve gone the conservative route and handed the starting job back to Rees (post-suspension) or even to Andrew Hendrix, a junior who saw some playing time last year. Instead, he opted for Everett Golson, a redshirt freshman from South Carolina, who lacked the game experience but possessed the athleticism to be a major playmaker.
The move was not a surprise. Some insiders believe Kelly decided on his 2012 quarterback midway through last season. What was surprising, though, was how a decisive shift in philosophy could feel so indecisive and still work. Golson’s inexperience and shaky play in games against Purdue and Stanford forced Kelly to use Rees in critical situations. To Rees’ credit, he delivered in a big way. To the point that he was labeled a “closer” by some and Notre Dame’s first half MVP by others.
On the surface, the situation had all the makings of a full-blown quarterback controversy. In reality, the transition was just slower and more uncomfortable than normal. One week after leading the Irish to an overtime victory over Stanford, Rees took over for a concussed Golson and struggled in a close win over BYU. The following week, Golson returned and logged the best performance of his young career in a road test against Oklahoma. From that point forward, it was clear that Kelly could trust Golson, and it marked the beginning of the end for Rees’ playing time. A week later, with its back against the wall against Pitt, Rees made another relief appearance and faltered badly. That was that.
Ultimately, it was Golson who re-entered against Pitt, led Notre Dame to uncertain victory, and preserved an undefeated season. Since then, Rees has been a virtual non-factor, Hendrix hasn’t been seen or heard, and the inevitable transfer of the highly touted and currently redshirted Gunner Kiel seems perfectly intact.
The nurturing of Golson into a full-time starter represents Kelly’s finest job as a head football coach and proves why Notre Dame hired him in the first place: he can develop talent. Though the senior leadership from stars like Manti Te’o cannot be overlooked, neither should Kelly’s skill in bringing along the underclassmen, especially on defense, who have made the Irish championship run a reality. This is a younger team than most realize.
Notre Dame has been installed as a 10-point underdog in advance of its title game against Alabama. There’s no doubt that this will be the most challenging game of the season, and the SEC’s track record of success on the biggest stage is well-documented. It is difficult to argue that Alabama wasn’t the best football team throughout the course of the regular season. Most analysts aren’t asking if Notre Dame can win, but whether the Irish can even keep it close.
However, this is familiar territory. Questions about whether the offense can move the ball on a solid defense are legitimate; concerns over the defense taming a truly powerful offense are fair. But the same questions have lingered all season long, and Kelly has found the right answers.
Maybe this is all part of Kelly’s long game. The Irish never had a chance, right? Lord knows they fooled me.