Brian Kelly is on the hot seat at Notre Dame, perhaps the nation’s hottest after the Fighting Irish plummeted to 4-8 last season. Kelly did not handle himself with complete grace during much of it. He showed ample frustration on the sideline. He tossed players under the bus after losses.
The environment appeared toxic, and there were reports Kelly was interested in moving elsewhere (not clear how much interest there was on the other end).
Will 2017 be a make or break season for Kelly in South Bend? Can this Irish team do enough to save him?
Notre Dame was not as bad as their record suggested in 2016. The Irish did the opposite of Clemson, losing seven of eight one-score games. It was the antithesis of the 2012 run of fortune that saw Notre Dame win all five one-score games (twice in overtime) en route to the national title game.
Advanced metrics were kinder to the Irish than the win-loss record. S&P+ ranked Notre Dame 26th nationally, and FEI had them 42nd. That’s not great. That’s not where many thought they would be before the season. But that’s the raw statistical performance of one of Brian Kelly’s patented 8-5 teams.
Not all, but some of this was just bad luck. For instance, Notre Dame only recovered 15 of 39 fumbles during their games (38 percent). Evening out that luck to 50/50 alone may have brought Notre Dame back a win or two.
That’s not saying the Irish were a great team or even a good one. But, finishing 4-8 was at the far low end of probable outcomes. So, even modest improvement could see a major record adjustment.
Much of that improvement must happen on defense. The Irish did not generate much pressure up front. They were 103rd in tackles for loss and 117th in sacks, including a notable 14-quarter stretch without one to start the season. That only ramped up pressure on an Irish secondary that was devastated by injuries and off-the-field troubles. Notre Dame finished 121st per S&P+ in secondary havoc.
Kelly replaced epic Brian VanGorder fist pumps with well-regarded Wake Forest defensive coordinator Mike Elko. He is bringing more energy during cone drills and a more versatile 4-2-5 defense. Though, this unit will still have personnel issues. Notre Dame will miss Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, and James Onwualu from the front seven (who accounted for 39.5 of the 61 TFL in 2016). Three of Notre Dame’s top four tacklers in the secondary are back for 2017. All three are sophomores. The Irish secondary will still be quite young.
On offense, Notre Dame may lose its strength from last season, passing efficiency, with DeShone Kizer leaving early from the NFL. His backup Malik Zaire transferred to Florida. That leaves Brandon Wimbush, a Top 50 overall recruit from 2015.
The Irish have multiple starters back at the skill positions and an experienced offensive line. Kelly also hired Mike Norvell’s offensive coordinator Chip Long from Memphis. His Tigers, notably, barely missed a beat production-wise at quarterback, despite losing Paxton Lynch to the first round. That should be a sturdy foundation for breaking in a talented quarterback with upside. But, things have seldom been as straightforward as they looked on paper at quarterback during Kelly’s tenure.
Notre Dame’s schedule could be a limiting factor. The travel is easier, with the Irish playing zero neutral site games. But they have four Top-20ish opponents, Georgia/USC at home and Miami/Stanford on the road. Perennial sleeper pick N.C. State (home) may creep up to that level as well. Back-to-back road trips to Boston College and Michigan State in September may be tougher than anticipated. The Miami and Stanford road trips also sandwich the rivalry game against Navy. The Irish could easily counter an upset by dropping a game they should not.
Much of this season will come down to Kelly. He’s managing transition on both sides of the ball. There’s much to do psychologically. Even if Notre Dame’s 4-8 season was unfortunate, those losses still happened. The Irish need to rebuild confidence.
What’s not clear is where one sets the win threshold for Kelly. He has had highs at Notre Dame. He has also finished 8-4 or worse during the regular season five times in seven years. Fans were not all in before the 2016 tumble.
Kelly probably has more pull within the administration than with the fan base. He signed a six-year extension with the Irish after his 10-win 2015 campaign. Notre Dame contracts aren’t public, but that suggests his buyout is still substantial. After getting burned with Charlie Weis’ buyout, that’s not a route Notre Dame wants to go down again unless it must.
A good season saves Kelly. Missing a bowl game again sinks him. The interesting call will be what happens if Notre Dame finishes in the 7-8 win range. Odds makers expect that to happen. Their win total over/under line is 7.5.