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Consistent Disappointment: The Struggle of Notre Dame Football

Jacob Robinson

Consistent Disappointment: The Struggle of Notre Dame Football

College football is one of the cornerstones of American history. Teams that had earlier success when college football started up continue to have success in the current era of the sport: Bear Bryant and Alabama thrived in the 60s and 70s, while Nick Saban continued the Crimson Tide’s success with titles throughout the 2010s with no end in sight. Oklahoma dominated the 1950s, and while they haven’t won a National Championship since 2000, they appeared in two title games in the aughts and have produced back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners and College Football Playoff Appearances. I could go on, but you get the point. The only program that has seen its struggles since the turn of the century with pre-1990 success is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The sports gods are cruel, and I have to balance the success of Boston sports with a college football program that struggles to get it done when it matters most.

Notre Dame is in a tough spot for fans like myself and for the overall program. The Irish aren’t awful, but they’re not elite. They’ve shown flashes of elite potential, but never enough to get over the hump. The Irish went undefeated in 2012, but got blown out in Miami in the National Championship by Alabama. Last season in 2018, they went undefeated again, but got killed to the eventual National Champion Clemson Tigers. Like the saying goes: Notre Dame is always a bridesmaid but never a bride.

With Notre Dame always getting national attention, there have been a lot of haters throughout the years. Not a whole lot of people thought they deserved National Championship/Playoff bids in 2012 and 2018, even before they got beat badly. Some of this has to do with the fact that Notre Dame is an Independent. A lot of experts, fans and analysts believe Notre Dame doesn’t deserve any hype or love towards a championship birth because of this, but being an Independent has nothing to do with their lack of success in “big games”. Throughout the years, they have scheduled elite matchups and have played a tougher schedule than arguably most teams throughout the country; in the last five seasons, they have played Georgia twice, at Clemson, at Florida State, and have regularly play Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, USC and Virginia Tech. These are all elite programs, and due to their strength of schedule, there are no advantages of joining a conference. The conference they would most likely join is the ACC (due to their consistent scheduling of ACC teams), and we all know the only perk of joining the ACC is the opportunity to play Clemson. A consistent argument for why Notre Dame needs to join a conference is to play a conference championship, but we have seen in years past that the only competitive conference championship is the SEC, and even sometimes that can be a cake-walk as well.

To hammer the point home further, here’s a look at the top teams Notre Dame will have to play in the coming years:

2020: vs. Wisconsin (in Green Bay), vs. Stanford, vs. Clemson, at. USC

2021: at. Florida State, vs. Wisconsin (in Chicago), vs. USC, at. Stanford

2022: at. Ohio State, vs. Clemson, vs. Stanford, at. USC

2023: vs. Ohio State, at. Clemson, vs. USC, at. Stanford

Additionally, there are home-and-home games scheduled in the future against Texas A&M and Alabama. Looking at the next four seasons, Notre Dame isn’t playing a cupcake schedule whatsoever, and this can become a tougher slate of games than most college football teams. I didn’t leave out some of the opponents that Notre Dame will play that doesn’t look like anything stellar right now, but things can change in a year or two. Being an Independent is nothing but harsh reactions from the media and College Football fans, but in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee and AP Voters, it doesn’t matter if Notre Dame belongs to a conference or not.

Quick side note, I do want to point this out: I may be biased, but the reason there is so much animosity towards the Fighting Irish is due to one thing: Jealousy. I’ve seen the whole “They hate us cause they ain’t us” mantra as a Patriots fan, so I know it when I see it. No matter who they play, Notre Dame will end up on Primetime. Every game they get will be aired on ESPN, ABC, CBS, or NBC. Every home game is on NBC. Every road game, depending on the caliber of the opponent, will end up on CBS or ESPN. Most, if not all of the eventual National Champions had to play a game or two on the Big Ten Network, or the SEC Network, or another lower tier Network. No matter who is at the helm and what their record was the season prior, they always land the top recruits and consistently have a Top 10 recruiting class. This is because of the opportunity to play for Notre Dame, Touchdown Jesus, the gold helmets, Rudy and the program’s history. They have won 11 National Championships, and have produced a lot of NFL talent throughout the years. Even if you consider them to be overrated or not, jealousy due to the rich history and program success and competitiveness is definitely a factor.

But no matter who they get, they still can’t win big games when it matters most. They got killed in two National Championship/Playoff games. They lost to JaMarcus Russell and LSU in the Sugar Bowl in 2007 41-14, Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl in both 2006 and 2016. They’re 5-13 in their last 18 Bowl games, which, as crazy as it sounds, isn’t good. They’ve lost big games throughout the regular season when it matters most, and even if for the most part these losses have been by less than a touchdown, Notre Dame still can’t get it done.

So what’s the issue? For starters, it’s mostly have been Quarterback play. Here’s a list of the Quarterbacks that have started for the Fighting Irish since Brady Quinn (the Last Notre Dame QB to win a QB award), and their records as the Irish starter:

Jimmy Clausen: 13-18

Demetrius Jones: 0-1

Evan Sharpley: 0-2

Tommy Rees: 23-8

Dayne Crist: 4-6

Everett Golson: 17-6

Malik Zaire: 3-0

DeShone Kizer: 12-11

Brandon Wimbush: 13-3

Ian Book: 13-3

Aside from Rees, most of these records are average and even if they are good, the records are across multiple seasons and occured after a player was benched. Golson only had one good season, Zaire had his 3 wins over two seasons, and Book and Wimbush got their wins over two years as well. Aside from records, these names don’t jump off the page and none of these players have found or will find NFL success. Notre Dame’s success in 2012 and 2018 when they made postseason appearances was due to their impressive defenses that graduated many players into the National Football League, and covered up the offensive inefficiencies. Ever since Everrett Golson led the Irish to the Title Game in 2012, the quarterback play has been average at best, and the defense has been keeping the Irish in games and in the playoff picture for the most part.

After the rough QB play, who else gets the blame? That would fall on the coaching staff. 50% of it is on Brian Kelly, and 50% of it is on the defensive and offensive coordinators of years past. Chip Long and Kelly have been horrible calling offensive plays this season thus far, as evident by the lack of production against Louisville in the season-opener, and by scoring a measly 7 points against Michigan (we’re not going to count a garbage time TD when the game was already over) coming off a bye week. Brian VanGorder, the defensive coordinator from 2014-16, was abysmal at times, not even seeing the whole 2016 season before he was fired 4 games into the season after giving up 50 points against Texas, 36 against Michigan State and 38 against Duke. Kelly was on the hot seat after the 2016 season, but because of the solid 2017 and 2018 seasons, he got off it and solidified his positioning as head coach. The defense has improved over time, but since they got their act together after the 2016 season, lackluster offensive production has plagued them, and this season isn’t the sexiest either from an offensive standpoint. Going in, the main headline was the play of Ian Book entering his senior year and the step forward he was going to take in what will most likely be his first full season as a starter in 2019 (he was named starter for the Irish after Week 4, replacing Wimbush). But he has not lived up to expectations, as the Irish sit at 5-2 halfway through the season. 5-2 isn’t the end of the world, but a season after going undefeated, the two losses could have been wins if it were for better play-calling and QB play.

When it comes to Brian Kelly long term, a lot will be riding on the rest of the season. If the team gives up and loses a couple of games towards the end of the year, Kelly deserves to be shown the door. They play Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy, Boston College and Stanford. Notre Dame on paper should win out the remaining games and be selected for a very solid Bowl Game, and maybe a New Year’s 6 Bowl if the chips fall the right way. If they can win out and beat a respectable opponent in a quality Bowl (December 28 or better), then Kelly should keep his job.

As cliche as it sounds, the future is bright in South Bend, it just all depends on two things: Quarterback play, and the Head Coach. I’m all for Kelly keeping his job if they win out. Anything less (including a Bowl loss under the right circumstances), and there needs to be a replacement. He has been the signal-caller since 2010, and at some point, Notre Dame has to ask itself when enough is enough. The last thing the Irish faithful want is to have a Marvin Lewis situation where they are good and can compete, but never get it done in the late stages of the season. We are reaching Marvin Lewis territory over the next couple of seasons. The goal is to win a National Championship, and Brian Kelly can put Notre Dame within striking distance, but he also has to get over the hump. Granted, no one was beating Clemson last season nor was anyone coming close to beating Alabama in 2012, but at some point, they have to have a reality check and decide on the future of Kelly if things continue to go south.

The defense is young and will only get better over time. The offensive weapons are still solid and although there will be some graduating seniors who will leave the program next season, the replacements are there. The 2020 class is headlined by two excellent, program-changing players in Chris Tyree and Jordan Johnson, both 5-star All-Americans. A ton of 4-star commits will be on the way to provide depth for the Irish, and the man who will lead the team should have everyone excited. While he will be a Junior in 2020, QB Phil Jurkovec has shown flashes of excellence in garbage time relief efforts while backing up Ian Book for the past two seasons. He has the potential to be one of the better Quarterbacks in South Bend, and regardless of whether or not Book returns for a 5th year (He has that option in 2020), he has shown that he isn’t the answer to get Notre Dame to the National Championship. Jurkovec or true freshman Brandon Clark might be, and there is always the possibility of the transfer window.

The struggle of Notre Dame is always apparent, but their efforts in the last two seasons plus whatever comes of this year is always a good sign. I won’t discount winning the Citrus Bowl in 2017 or making it into the Top 4 against the Irish. But in order to change things in the future and going forward, the Irish have to show they are capable of being in the conversation with the elite in College Football. Whether that starts with QB play, Brian Kelly or not, questions need to be answered before the Irish faithful can start to feel good about their football team in 2020 and beyond.

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