Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 26 of 47 FEBRUARY 2019 27 ington and even Michigan — because the 4-8 Irish derailment in 2016 is now viewed more as an anomaly. To get to 12-1 and the College Football Playoff is a significant bonus. Once upon at a time at Notre Dame, a two- or three-loss football season was viewed as the floor, but in recent decades it's been the ceiling. In the 24 years from 1994-2017, every time a Fighting Irish follower was optimistic that Notre Dame was "turning the corner," it would then plummet back to "same ol' over- hyped Notre Dame." To wit, since the turn of the cen- tury: from 9-3 in 2000 to 5-6 in 2001, from 10-3 in 2002 to 5-7 in 2003, from 10-3 in 2006 to 3-9 in 2007 … and most recently from 10-3 in 2015 to 4-8 in 2016. In other words, Notre Dame had failed to become a "program" — an operation that reloads year after year no matter the personnel losses, coaching staff changes, scheduling quirks, etc. The week of this year 's opener versus Michigan, outlined four crucial elements that would clearly define a "successful" 2018 Notre Dame football season. 1. A Minimum Of 10 Wins This in and of itself would not con- stitute a successful campaign because it's hardly been unique the past 24 years. The Irish were 10-3 in 2002, 2006, 2015 and 2017 (in addition to the 12-1 mark in 2012). Been there. Done that. Status quo. However, since 1991-93, the Fight- ing Irish had not posted back-to-back 10-win campaigns. Mission accom- plished in 2018. A 10-win season in 2018 by no means would have indicated that Notre Dame has "arrived." However, winning 10 games for the third time in four years reaffirms that Notre Dame is at least becoming a bona fide top-10 to top-15 program. That's not what anyone at the school is aspiring to as the Holy Grail, but at least one drought on the field has ended. Anything less than 10-3 would have been another setback, no mat- ter how one would try to spin it. 2. Hold Serve At Home In the 28 seasons from 1990-2017, Notre Dame finished unbeaten at home only three times: 1998, 2012 and 2015. It came close in 2017 too, with the lone blemish a one-point loss to Georgia (20-19), which lost the national title in overtime. Accomplishing it a third time in seven seasons under head coach Brian Kelly is a laudable achieve- ment. Plus, vanquishing both Michi- gan and Stanford at home in Sep- tember is what began to perpetuate College Football Playoff discussion all the way through Thanksgiving weekend at USC. In the 69 football seasons since 1950, this marked the 14th time Notre Dame finished unscathed at home. The overall record in such years is 142-20-2 — a .872 winning percent- age, highlighted by four consensus national titles, a shared one and six near misses while playing for it all or at least reaching the playoff. 3. A Sweep Of Michigan/USC Kelly's dicta for the base of a suc- cessful regular season are three-fold: Win the opener, win the finale and win the rivalry games. This year the Irish bookended the regular season with identical 24-17 conquests of the Wolverines and Tro- jans, the school's two prime rivals the past 40 years. This was the 33rd season that Notre Dame played both Michigan and USC, and it has now swept them seven times. In those seven years, the Irish regular season record was 73-7 (.913 winning percentage). Moreover, since 1994 (the begin- ning of the down trend), the Irish have played both the Wolverines and Trojans 18 times in the same year. Only twice were both conquered — and not coincidentally both times re- sulted in 12-0 regular seasons (2012 and 2018). 4. Win A Major Bowl And/Or Get To College Football Playoff In the 24 years from 1994-2017, Notre Dame lost a minimum of three games 23 times. The outlier was the 12-1 finish in 2012. If 2018 truly was going to be some- thing different, Notre Dame either had to end not winning a major bowl in 24 years or reach the four-team College Football Playoff for the first time in the five-year history of the event. Losing to Clemson unfortunately kept the major bowl drought alive, but advancing to the Final Four was a special feat. A couple of days prior to the showdown with Clemson, Kelly was asked by a reporter whether a win over the Tigers would validate Notre Dame's return to the national scene. "We are," Kelly replied without skipping a beat. "We wouldn't be [in the College Football Playoff] unless we are on the national scene." It wasn't the ultimate destination, but Notre Dame has traveled many miles to position itself to excel in the years to come. ✦ Staying Hungry After receiving national coach of the year awards from the Associated Press, the Bobby Dodd Foun- dation and Home Depot, Brian Kelly will enter his 10th season at Notre Dame in 2019 with an outlook of not resting on such laurels. "When you're in, especially, a job like Notre Dame, you're required to sharpen your skills every year, and if you don't you're going to be exposed," Kelly said. "You have to challenge yourself to be better at your profession each and every year. I don't know that there's an area where I haven't worked to be better at. The competition is so keen every year — there are some great young coaches. " … I don't think you get to this position and go, 'I think I figured it all out.' I haven't. You're always trying to stay on top of how do you deal with Generation Z's and millennials, all of those things. You have to stay in tune with all the things that are required of a head football coach." One of his most important lessons from the 4-8 meltdown in 2016 was to remain in heavy engage- ment with his most precious resource — the players. "Being present and available, and being around your guys — you can't be gone for a month," he said. "I used to be gone three or four days recruiting. Now, it's I'm flying out and flying back, because you feel like you lose the heartbeat of what's going on if you're gone for two or three days." He is also of the mindset that while Notre Dame might not get as many premier five-star caliber tal- ents out of high school such as an Alabama, it's imperative to identity and cultivate who can be five-star contributors by the time they leave Notre Dame. "It starts with identifying those players that fit Notre Dame and then will be here over a period of time that allows them to grow and develop. When you put them on the field, they've been here and they've grown and developed into mature young men," Kelly said. — Lou Somogyi

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