Thursday, September 2, 2010
Best Case/Worst Case: Notre Dame
By Brian Bennett
What is the best and worst that Notre Dame can expect in Year One under Brian Kelly? We take a look at each extreme scenario. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of this hyperbole.
Kelly proves as good as the last slick-talking, successful college head coach who came to South Bend: Lou Holtz. His enthusiasm, motivational skills and offensive handiwork are just what the Irish needed. Already boasting some top-shelf talent like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Manti Te'o, Notre Dame is better conditioned, better coached and better able to pull out the close games they often lost under Charlie Weis.
The difference is evident right away, as Dayne Crist leads an explosive offensive attack and the defense looks much improved in an opening 21-point win against Purdue. The fan base really gets energized as the Irish beat Michigan by seven in Week 2 and then take out Michigan State on a last-second field goal to go 3-0.
Stanford's defense has no answers for the Irish offense in the fourth game, and Kelly's momentum really picks up steam with a last-minute win in his hometown against Boston College.
Kelly continues his mastery over Pittsburgh's Dave Wannstedt and then Notre Dame glides into the cruise-control portion of the schedule against Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa. The only tough test in a month is at home against Utah, but the Irish take care of business against the Utes, looking more creative offensively than Urban Meyer's old team. At 11-0 they travel to USC ranked No. 1 and with Domers and Domer-haters in an absolute tizzy. It's the biggest story of the year in college football.
But he Trojans use that game as their Super Bowl and pull out the win on a controversial goal-line call late. Denied a national title chance, the Irish wind up in the Sugar Bowl against Meyer and the Florida Gators. Kelly, who missed facing Florida in last year's Sugar Bowl when he bolted from Cincinnati, runs with his second opportunity. Crist throws for 350 yards, Floyd has three touchdown catches and Notre Dame wins 35-31.
NBC extends its contract with the school for another 10 years, doubling the rights fees. Recruits start decommitting from places like USC, Florida and LSU and start casting their eyes toward South Bend. A new dynasty is born.
Is there an echo in here? Anyone?
Kelly looks a lot like the last guy Notre Dame brought in from Cincinnati: Gerry Faust. Sure, he had a great run at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but those places are nothing like Notre Dame. There are some talented individuals on the roster, but the defense has been terrible for a reason, depth is an issue, and if Crist gets hurt, the whole operation could go south in a hurry. Which is what happens.
The Irish secondary can't stop Robert Marve in the opener, but the team slips past Purdue in the final minute in Kelly's debut. Still, the cracks are evident and are about to be exposed.
Rich Rodriguez, who was Brian Kelly in the Big East before Kelly arrived, brings resurgent Michigan into South Bend and has Denard Robinson slice through the defenseless Irish. Crist re-injures his surgically repaired knee in that game, forcing freshman Tommy Rees to start the next game at Michigan State. The results are predictable, and after an 1-2 start the fan base is nervous.
Notre Dame gets back on track at home against Stanford, but old nemesis Boston College pulls off another gut-punch victory in the rivalry. Pittsburgh makes it three in a row over the Domers, who are now 2-4. Serious debate begins as to whether Kelly was the right hire.
The schedule lightens and allows for some sun to shine through. Wins come over Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa. But Utah -- which has been a much stronger program over the past decade than Notre Dame -- earns bragging rights for the Mormons on Catholic turf.
Notre Dame beats Army but is blown out in the finale by USC in typical recent fashion. A 5-7 first year is viewed as a disaster, and some alumni already call for Kelly's resignation. Florida and Meyer win another national title. NBC terminates its contract with the school, which begins wishing it had joined the Big Ten.