He might get smoked against Alabama, but Brian Kelly is a better coach than we give him credit for
I’m looking into the crystal ball, and I don’t think the immediate future is a pretty sight for Brian Kelly.
Come New Year’s Day, or New Year’s night (?), it wouldn’t surprise me if the Notre Dame coach was trending on Twitter. Like, the bad kind of trending. The kind of trending one gets when they just got embarrassed on national television and the masses take to social media to criticize his performance.
It probably didn’t help matters that Kelly said on Monday that despite some blowout losses on the big stage, Notre Dame has “nothing to prove.”
“We’re knocking at the door every year, playing really good teams and great opponents, and they’re elite football teams,” Kelly said (via ESPN). “I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the game. No, we haven’t won a national championship. That’s correct. And, you know, I’m not changing the record. But we are there every single year and we are grinding it out just like everybody else.”
The “record” he’s referring to is, well, probably a couple different things. It could be the fact that Notre Dame is 0-2 in its last 2 BCS/Playoff games having been outscored by an average of 27.5 points. It could also be that in New Year’s 6 Bowl games since the start of the BCS era in 1998, Notre Dame is 0-6 having been outscored by an average of 24 points. Or it could even be that the Irish are 2-19 vs. top-5 foes in the BCS era.
Honestly, I wasn’t on the call so I don’t know entirely which record Kelly was referring to. They’re all bad.
What I do know is that even if Kelly gets smacked by Alabama again on Friday night — as the most lopsided Playoff underdog in its 7-year history — he’ll be a better coach than any social media warrior realizes.
Nope, he’s not Nick Saban. We’ll probably get 60 minutes worth of reminders that they’ve built different programs with totally different levels of upside. Nope, Kelly isn’t Dabo Swinney, either. We already got 60 minutes worth of reminders that they built programs with totally different levels of upside.
News flash — Saban and Swinney are in a class of their own. Let’s stop pretending that there’s another coach in arm’s reach of them in the sport. That hasn’t been the case since Urban Meyer stepped down (again).
If Kelly is being held to the same standard as Saban and Swinney, I think we’re looking at this all wrong.
Some pretended like Notre Dame’s status as an independent meant that it was playing some cupcake schedule just because it didn’t play a conference championship. Let’s take away bowl games. From 2014-19 — before Notre Dame went 10-0 in its lone season in the ACC — Notre Dame played an average of 5.7 regular-season games away from home. That’s the exact same as Ohio State and Alabama. Clemson played 1 more game away from home during that 6-season stretch than Notre Dame.
Yet when the Irish get smacked on the big stage, it’s “well, Notre Dame is just skating by with that independent schedule and is really a fraud.” Nope. Notre Dame is just running into juggernauts who have superior talent and coaching, who when given a month to prepare, look the part.
Kelly is right. His team is there every year … except for 2016. A 43-7 mark since that stretch — with the majority of those losses coming via Georgia and Clemson — is actually better than Oklahoma (44-8), LSU (39-12) and Penn State (35-12). Speaking of Georgia, Kelly’s mark in the last 4 years is actually slightly better than Kirby Smart’s 43-9, though we give Smart the obvious edge because of the 2 head-to-head wins (even though they were decided by an average of 3.5 points).
No, Kelly’s mark isn’t quite Ohio State’s 44-4. Alabama and Clemson have Kelly beat at 49-4 and 51-4, respectively. We knew that.
But we take for granted what it means to actually sustain success in college football. This is shaping up to be a 4th consecutive finish inside the top 12 for Kelly. That’s at Notre Dame, where sustaining success isn’t as simple as flashing Touchdown Jesus to every 5-star recruit and putting them into a trance while they smack the “Play like a champion today” sign and commit to 3-4 years in South Bend.
Notre Dame has higher academic standards for its student-athletes, which has been well-documented. It doesn’t believe in clustering its athletes into specific majors. It’s the same institution that self-reported 2 players having coursework done by a former player, and it was then forced to vacate wins.
It’s cliché, but the academic standards make it a steeper climb compared to the college football elite. Notre Dame will never recruit at the level of Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia or Clemson are it in this era. Kelly has 1 top-8 class in the Playoff era.
Of course, that’s not something anyone wants to hear as Notre Dame gets its teeth kicked in by one of those teams. It doesn’t mean Kelly should be void of all criticism. It does, however, provide context as to why this continues to happen to Notre Dame, even when it is a top-12 team like it’s been the last 4 years.
Want to know something crazy? Notre Dame is about to accomplish that feat of 4 consecutive top-12 finishes for the first time in 50 years. That’s right. Lou Holtz couldn’t even do that. Winning a national title changes things. This is actually going to be Notre Dame’s first time with 4 consecutive ranked finishes since 1993.
Yes, that’ll still be true if Alabama covers a 3-score spread and rolls to another title game. Many will say that “Kelly will never win the big one” and that “he’s taken the Irish as far as he could.” That might be true. It’ll be true with Saban and Swinney always standing in the way of Notre Dame winning its first undisputed national title since the Ronald Reagan administration.
That doesn’t make Kelly a failure by any stretch. It just makes him not Saban or Swinney. Ryan Day isn’t, either. At least not yet. Shoot, Meyer wasn’t even able to keep pace with those 2.
So when the New Year’s Day afternoon turns into night and Kelly’s name is inevitably trending on Twitter, remember that he isn’t nearly as doomed as many will argue. He might put his foot in his mouth in the postgame press conference, and he could very well add another not-so-flattering loss to one of the not-so-flattering records that Kelly referred to.
But these last 4 years have shown that he’s a much better coach than we realized. That crystal ball will have much better days.