On this day last year, the Irish football program was at rock bottom.
Notre Dame was collectively mourning the loss of Declan Sullivan. Football fans where openly questioning their new head coach, as Brian Kelly eschewed running the football with less than a minute to go against Tulsa for an endzone pass attempt to Michael Floyd. The move backfired when Tommy Rees‘ underthrown fade route was intercepted before David Ruffer had a chance to come in for the game-winning field goal attempt.
After battling out from under a 1-3 start, the Irish stubbed their way to a 4-5 start with ugly losses to Navy and Tulsa, and faced two of the season’s three hardest games ahead of them. A season that started with great expectations was now in full-scale salvage mode.
“The most important thing still is for us to get to six wins,” Kelly said then. “We’ve got to win two of three now. That’s our number one goal, to win two out of three games minimally to get to six wins.”
With a team that had collapsed the previous two Novembers, Kelly took his bye week to rebuild the psyche of his team, now missing its starting quarterback. In one of the great surprises of the last few years, Kelly’s squad came out against a heavily favored Utah team and drubbed the Utes 28-3. They locked in their automatic bowl bid and defeated an option attack in style soundly defeating Army in Yankee Stadium. Then, most impressively, settled a long suffering score against USC with a hard-fought 20-16 win.
The Irish’s demolition of Navy on Saturday did plenty to quell the stormy seas left behind from the Irish’s embarrassing loss to USC. But if the Irish are going to salvage a season that many had pegged ready for the BCS, they’ll need to put together an impressive November run, just like they did last year.
If the Irish are going to run the table until their Thanksgiving weekend date with Stanford, here are some things to consider:
You never expect to make it through a season without some personnel losses, but unlike last year, the Irish are much healthier heading into the stretch run. Here’s a quick position-by-position breakdown of where the Irish stand relative to the beginning of the season:
QB — Better off. Sure, Dayne Crist swapped spots with Rees. But the development of Andrew Hendrix has the Irish staff at least comfortable with the idea of three quarterbacks seeing the field.
RB — Better off. Even in the most optimistic eyes, people didn’t see Jonas Gray putting together a senior season like this. Both he and Cierre Wood have taken big steps forward, and George Atkinson‘s special teams dominance has added another playmaker to the mix at a position not all that deep.
TE — Step backwards. The loss of Mike Ragone has hurt the depth chart and makes you wonder what the running game would be like with Ragone in on blocking sets. Tyler Eifert has been one of the best TEs in the country, but behind him the Irish trot out Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, two guys with no experience. Jake Golic may or may not be injured, but at best he simply provides depth behind Eifert, Welch and Koyack.
OL — Hanging on. The Irish haven’t lost any contributors but have loss depth, with Tate Nichols lost for the season. That’s pushed freshman Nick Martin into the two-deep at left tackle, where he’s joined by fellow true freshman Conor Hanratty, who backs up Trevor Robinson. Neither is the true “next man in,” with Andrew Nuss the backup guard and Christian Lombard the backup tackle.
WR — Holding steady. The Irish still haven’t developed a true No. 2 wide receiver behind Michael Floyd. Both Theo Riddick and TJ Jones have had their moments. Robby Toma has fought his way onto the field as well. But the future looks uncertain without No. 3 on the outside, and whether or not its Davaris Daniels or an impact recruit still on the fence, the future is uncertain.
DL — Step backwards. Losing Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar and Ethan Johnson for significant time is a huge blow to the defensive front, even if Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Chase Hounshell have performed admirably. Before he tweaked his ankle, EJ had been one of the Irish’s most consistent performers. KLM had been playing some of his best football when a knee injury cost him the rest of his season. Defensive end was the Irish’s one true area of concern, and the losses hurt, even with the steady play of the freshmen.
LB — Holding steady. Once again, injuries have slowed down Danny Spond, but the only significant loss has been Anthony Rabasa, and the freshman wasn’t likely to see the field this year anyway. Manti Te’o seems to be on the right side of an ankle injury, Darius Fleming has played steady, and Troy Niklas has surprised. It’s not a particularly deep group, but the development of the players outside Fleming and Te’o has been good.
DB — Holding steady. There isn’t a lot of depth behind the frontline guys, but once again Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton have been consistent performers. A healthy Jamoris Slaughter has made a nice difference too, with Slaughter’s versatility on display against Air Force and Navy. The Irish would be wise to keep getting Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood on the field.
The latest Sagarin rankings have the Irish ranked No. 26 in the country. Their schedule up until Stanford, Sagarin’s No. 6 team, is pretty reasonable, with Wake Forest ranked 59th, Maryland ranked 91st, and Boston College ranked 113th. But a closer look at Sagarin’s rankings shows just how uneven these match-ups really are:
The Demon Deacons’ No. 59 ranking is much better than Sagarin’s predictor ranking (a more accurate assessment of the team), which has Wake at No. 74. Maryland’s predictor ranking is a bit stronger than its No. 91 ranking, where Sagarin sees them closer to the No. 83 team. By any measure, Boston College is mediocre, with the predictor ranking of 102 only slightly better than the No. 113 combined ranking.
Probably the most surprisingly part of Sagarin’s rank? Just how well regarded the Irish are from a scoring margin point-of-view. The Irish are the No. 11 team in Sagarin’s ratings, better than teams like South Carolina, Nebraska and Arkansas — three of the top ten team teams in the country, according to the AP Poll.
If you want a staggering stat, just look at the difference between what Brian Kelly has done in November to what Charlie Weis and the Irish did after his strong start. In Weis’ last three years with the Irish, he was a miserable 3-11 in the home stretch of the season, with two of those wins coming in the historically terrible 2007 season. Compare that to Kelly’s record:
Kelly’s undefeated November was the first for Notre Dame since Weis’ debut season. After watching the Irish run out of gas after promising starts in 2008 and 2009, Kelly reversed a trend that doomed Notre Dame. With the schedule setting up nicely until a trip to Palo Alto, the Irish have a chance to race up the rankings, even if the three early losses lowered the ceiling on the season.