When Brian Kelly chose to make a change last weekend at one of the premier positions in all of college football, that of Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, two mutually-exclusive phrases seemed applicable. The Irish head coach’s decision to turn to junior Ian Book and bench senior Brandon Wimbush was either all risk and no reward, or no risk and all reward.
Led by Wimbush, Notre Dame was undefeated and comfortably in the top 10 of the two polls widely-accepted as precursors to the College Football Playoff selection committee’s eventual ranking. Though the Irish offense had not yet broken 24 points, Notre Dame also had not yet trailed. Kelly was drastically changing a formula that had only produced thus far. In the binary world of sports (aside from the NFL and its inferior overtime thinking and, of course, all of soccer), the Wimbush formula had delivered the best possible outcome.
If that change went awry, then Kelly would have been exorciated for ruining what worked. If the Irish kept winning, well, they already were doing so and Kelly had not actually accomplished anything. All risk, no reward.
Then again, Notre Dame had beaten doormats Ball State and Vanderbilt by eight and five points, respectively. No disrespect intended to Commodores head coach Derek Mason — he plays in the SEC, after all — but beating Vanderbilt by less than a touchdown was far from what was expected of the Irish. Frankly, it would be less than expected in a year filled with struggles, let alone one befitting a top-10 ranking and northern California pipedreams. To keep those fantasies alive, disaster had to be averted before it arrived. Just because the simple arithmetic had worked through three games did not mean Notre Dame’s offense could solve a problem when more variables were added.
If the change went awry, then Kelly was always without a solution. If the Irish and Book suddenly found ways to score, then the personnel decision was a masterstroke, the catalyst to a season with a vaulted ceiling. No risk, all reward.
As is always the case at Notre Dame, none of this was so simple.
Kelly admits he has never before benched an undefeated quarterback. Few have. The obvious example these days is Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney sitting senior Kelly Bryant in favor of the No. 1 quarterback in the recruiting class of 2018, Trevor Lawrence. In Book, Kelly was not turning to a five-star recruit with an arm matched by only his hair, a la Lawrence.
Kelly was handing the reins to a former Washington State commit who arrived at Notre Dame only because a Boise State offensive coordinator stopped in South Bend for two years. Without Mike Sanford’s long pursuit of Book, the product of a Sacramento, Calif., suburb never would have ended up in northwestern Indiana. Frankly, it is questionable if Kelly would have ever heard of him before plausibly starting for the Cougars this season.
The risk was undeniable.
This wasn’t like Alabama in January, when Nick Saban turned to the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the recruiting class of 2017, Tua Tagovailoa, in place of junior Jalen Hurts. The Tide were out of time, trailing 13-0 at halftime in the national championship game. At that point, things could not have gotten much worse for Alabama, only better, which they did. Saban hardly took a risk that evening, while his reward was his sixth title (including 2003’s at LSU).
Kelly was 3-0 and things could not have been going much better for Notre Dame. Only worse, which they didn’t (yet). He took a risk last week, while his reward was just another victory against a hapless Deacons defense.
“You’re still evaluating your team and trying to figure out what’s the best way to continue to improve as the season moves on,” Kelly told Jim Rome this week. “Brandon was [12-3] as a starter, 3-0, and beat a really good Michigan team.
“In some instances that’s not an easy thing for a coach to do, but I knew it was for the betterment of our football team.”
There’s the reward. The Irish offense could not continue to bumble its way to 22 or 24 or even, somehow, only in theory, 27 points each week. The defense was carrying too much of a load, the wire was too thin, everything was set to break sooner or later, most likely tomorrow against No. 7 Stanford. If not, then in eight days at Virginia Tech in the very unwelcoming environment of Blacksburg, Va., and Metallica’s best-known opening chords.
On a smaller scale, and in the opposite direction regarding rookies and veterans, the reward compares to the situation SMU head coach Sonny Dykes faced last weekend. Entering overtime against Navy, Dykes benched freshman starter William Brown, turning to junior Ben Hicks. Dykes figured the Mustangs would need to throw the ball in overtime. Hicks’ two-point conversion backside pass proved him right.
The moment called for a specific change, and Dykes made it, leaving the player who had gotten him there aside. In Dallas, the change was temporary.
Kelly’s shift is not. He has left the horse that brought him to the party’s front door, hoping another can bring Notre Dame that much further. Leaving a known is always a risk. Keeping open the possibility of playing in northern California to begin 2019 is the reward.
The stakes offered no in between.