2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 3 of 163

2 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW F rom 1988-93, Notre Dame had its most recent run of "the glory years." The Fighting Irish were 64-9-1 (.872 win- ning percentage) during those six seasons, notably 5-1 in major bowl games while cap- turing one national title (1988) and barely missing out on two others (1989 and 1993). Even the lone bowl defeat in that time was a 10-9 decision to No. 1 Colorado when a debatable clipping call on Rocket Ismail's last-minute 91-yard punt return for a score prevented a slim but still potential split na- tional title chance for Notre Dame. Yet in retrospect, head coach Lou Holtz has looked back with regret at that era. "I wasn't tired of coaching when I left there, I was tired of maintaining," he has often reflected on stepping down in 1996 after 11 seasons. "There is no reason to celebrate when all you do is maintain success. Every organism in this world is either growing or dying, and that goes for football programs as well. Don't maintain anything in your life. … It doesn't have a thing to do with age. It has everything to do with trying to get better." Like predecessors Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-53) and Ara Parseghian (1964-74), who were multiple national title winners, Holtz lasted exactly 11 years at Notre Dame. Leahy was out of coaching for good by age 45 and Parseghian at 51 — a time when most just begin to reach the prime of their careers. Part of it is all three achieved the summit, a national title, in their third seasons. Once you've won it all, anything less becomes perceived as failure, which can gradually eat away on any mortal. Brian Kelly likewise played for a national title in year three (2012), but a 42-14 thump- ing from the Alabama dynasty in the title encounter became a sobering referendum on how the Irish weren't necessarily back to their glory days cycle. It became reaffirmed when in the ensuing years Notre Dame produced marks of 9-4, 8-5, 10-3 … and then 4-8. Repeating a similar 12-0 regular season in 2013 was unlikely, but producing a pedes- trian 31-20 ledger in the four years thereafter while failing to take advantage of that sud- den 2012 surge was discouraging. Kelly now gets a second chance after an- other 12-0 regular season in 2018. Yes, the Irish suffered another rout on the big stage, a 30-3 defeat to eventual na- tional champ Clemson in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff held in the Cot- ton Bowl. However, on the heels of the improved 10-3 finish in 2017 that resulted in a No. 11 placement in the final Associated Press poll, the 12-1 outcome and No. 5 ending has made Notre Dame 22-4 the past two seasons. Only fellow 2018 CFP participants Clem- son (27-2), Alabama (27-2) and Oklahoma (24-4), along with Ohio State (25-3), have done better among the 65 Power Five teams the past two years. That has clearly been the top quartet in college football the last five seasons, the standard toward which Notre Dame is aspir- ing on the playing field. Unfortunately, the gap has remained pronounced, with the Irish getting outscored 116-45 in their three big- time bowl meetings with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Repeating another 12-0 regular season and CFP bid in 2019 is likely unrealistic for Notre Dame. It hasn't had back-to-back un- beaten and untied regular season outcomes since Knute Rockne's last two seasons in 1929 (9-0) and 1930 (10-0) — and he didn't even have to play 12 games. What should not be inconceivable is: • Finishing with a minimum of 10 victo- ries for the fourth time in five years. That has to be the floor instead of the ceiling if Notre Dame is to be taken seriously as more than a second-tier/top-10 caliber operation. • Placing in the final AP top 10 in consec- utive years for the first time since 1991-93. • Not having more than two losses in a campaign for only the third time since 1994. • Winning a Big Six-type bowl for the first time since 1993. • Not making 2018 look like a fluke. By year nine at Notre Dame in 1994, Holtz began a downward trajectory that re- sulted in a 6-5-1 finish. He said if he had to it all over again, he would have spent more time with the players than worrying about outcomes. On the flip side, Kelly will be entering year 10 and appears to be at the apex of his coaching career with the Irish, including maximizing his time with the players. How much longer can he build upon it be- fore his contract expires after his 12th season in 2021 (unless an inevitable extension is given for the sake of appearances)? Continuing to grow in 2019 rather than just sustain remains vital as it did 20, 50 and even 100 years ago. ✦ A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A RUN AT GLORY YEARS THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at lsomogyi@blueandgold.com Current head coach Brian Kelly (center) is trying to duplicate the same kind of success his predecessors Lou Holtz (left) and Ara Parseghian (right) achieved during their time in South Bend. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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