The case for 9-3


When addressing the media after his worst coaching loss in nearly two full seasons, Brian Kelly made it clear that the season could go two ways, after starting with three loses in their first four games.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after losing to Stanford. “Some
are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8 or 9-3. It’s what you
decide to do from here on out.”

Since then, the Irish have righted the ship and rattled off three straight wins to up their record to 4-3 as they prepare to face Navy. And Kelly’s hope that the Irish could be one of those select teams that turn their season around is on the right track.

The remaining schedule for the Irish:

Oct 23 — Navy (at Meadowlands)
Oct 30 — Tulsa (Home)
Nov 13 — Utah (Home)
Nov 20 — Army (at Yankee Stadium)
Nov 27 — Southern Cal (Away)

At the beginning of the season, various websites did win probability polls that determined confidence in the Irish winning games. Here’s what two websites — and came up with:

Navy                      84% (CM) 86% (ND)
Tulsa                     92% (CM) 92% (ND)
Utah                      69% (CM) 64% (ND)
Army                     96% (CM) 94% (ND)
USC                      53% (CM) 48% (ND)

By this logic, the Irish should be favorites to win in every game, except for USC, giving Notre Dame fans hope that the best-case scenario still has a few chances of happening.

The Irish did salvage victories against Boston College and Pitt, two of the games that fans predicted to be some of the most difficult on the slate. Unfortunately, they also lost games against Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford, three other games that people predicted the Irish should (slighty) win.

If you checked an Irish fan’s gut, you’d think that they’d feel confident that the Irish would beat Navy, Tulsa, and Army, and probably be 50-50 to beat both Utah and USC. Noted college football predictor Jeff Sagarin ranks both Utah and USC within his top 20, though Utah is facing the Irish at home after a bye week, and also has played the 110th best schedule thus far this year, an indicator that we’re just not sure how good the Utes really are.

The Irish head to Southern Cal on Thanksgiving Saturday, facing a Trojan team that lost last-second games to both Washington and Stanford, and finally put together a convincing victory against Cal last weekend after playing uneven football in the first seven weeks of the season. There’s no evidence that points to the Irish having a better than 50/50 chance after the last decade against the Trojans, but USC has a razor-thin roster and a coaching staff that has hardly proven itself as adept as the previous regime in Troy.

One incredibly interesting way of looking at the Irish’s chances of running the table comes courtesy of Brian Fremeau. Fremeau created the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), a “rating system based on drive-based Game Efficiency data
that rewards playing well against good teams, win or lose, and punishes
losing to poor teams more harshly than it rewards defeating poor teams.”

How does Fremeau rank the Irish chances of running the table?

Well, not so good:

Final Record Win Likelihoods:

9-3 3.3%

8-4 22.7%

7-5 39.1%

6-6 26.9%

5-7 or worse 8.0%

Fremeau gives the Irish only a 3.3 percent chance of running the table, and a one in four chance of winning eight games. He ranks the Irish as the 38th best team right now with a strength-of-schedule at No. 15 to date. His ratings likely take into consideration the inconsistencies that have plagued the Irish offense thus far, struggles that make beating teams like Navy, Utah, and USC statistically less possible.

(They also probably don’t take into consideration injuries to Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick, and the possibility that Michael Floyd might also miss some time.)

Crunching some numbers, I feel like Fremeau might be selling the Irish a tad bit short. My rudimentary number-crunching and mediocre statistical skills makes me feel like there’s about a 20 percent chance that the Irish walk into bowl season with a 9-3 record, something Irish fans should feel happy about after starting the year in a massive hole thanks to some two heart-breaking losses. That said, your case for a nine win season is far stronger if you trust your gut feeling rather than any mathematical breakdown.

Not many Irish fans have trusted their gut lately, a product of disappointing losses and underachievement over the years. If Kelly could pull this one off, running the table and beating the numbers that so often have defined the Irish football team, it’d have plenty of people very happy — coaches, fans, and administrators alike.