Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2020

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

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4 JANUARY 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED W hile scanning various news outlets recently for some cyberspace perspective about what a trip to Orlando, Fla., for the Camping World Bowl means for Notre Dame, it was surprising to see an equal number of polarizing headlines and stories essen- tially labeled either, "Why 2019 was a huge success" or "Why 2019 was an epic failure." Head coach Brian Kelly has brought his program a long way when winning 10 regular-season games is considered an epic failure. What if we were guaran- teed the following in the preseason: • Notre Dame would win at least 10 games for a third straight season, something it hadn't done since 1991-93. • Th e Figh tin g Irish would go undefeated at home for the second straight season and run their win- ning streak at Notre Dame Stadium to 18 games. • Notre Dame would finish the regular season No. 14 in the coun- try with a plus-18.4 average scoring margin, and its 10 wins would be by an average of 25.8 points per contest. • The Irish would win at Stanford for the first time since 2007, and in doing so Kelly would join Knute Rockne as the only coaches in pro- gram history to go 5-0 in November. Who wouldn't have signed up for that profile entering the postseason? But for whatever reason — pri- marily the 45-14 fiasco at Michigan Oct. 26 — few noticed through No- vember that Notre Dame was play- ing one of its best sustained stretches of football of the 10-year Kelly era, and some of the best in the country. In their last four games, the Fight- ing Irish disposed of Duke, Navy, Boston College and Stanford by a combined 175-58 count, an average score of 43.8-14.5. Yet, like a tree falling in the woods with nobody there to hear it, the col- lege football world was unimpressed. Notre Dame climbed from No. 16 to only No. 14 in the Associated Press poll during the five-game winning streak, it was an afterthought in the College Football Playoff rankings, and it ended up going "Camping" in Orlando with a five-loss Iowa State team. "It's getting one more chance," said Kelly, dutifully putting a posi- tive spin on what has to be a disap- pointing postseason destination, "for these guys to play with their brothers and enjoy the game, enjoy the oppor- tunity to be in Orlando, part of the Camping World Bowl." The Michigan outcome gashed a deep scar into this season. This blow- out loss essentially knocked the Irish out of any College Football Playoff consideration before November had even arrived. But to Kelly's credit, he kept the team together. "They've done a really good job of avoiding a lot of the different sce- narios that are set up about how they should think," Kelly said of his play- ers moving forward after the loss in Ann Arbor. "… We won't be defined by any one game in particular." Kelly has lifted expecta- tions for his program to a point now that anything short of a CFP berth feels disappointing. That's the good news. But the downside to the expectations Kelly has built around his program is that if and when CFP hopes are dashed during any season, enthusiasm and apprecia- tion deflate because 10 wins has become merely a mea- sure of program consistency, not of program success. Remember how thrilling 10 wins was in 2017 after going 4-8 in 2016? Compare that exuberance from three years ago to win- ning 10 games in 2019. For better or worse, 10 wins now marks the low expectation end at Notre Dame, which isn't all bad, especially with no realis- tic reason to think that mark won't be reached again next season, and many more times in the foreseeable future. Consider that if Kelly and his Irish beat Iowa State, it will mean 33 wins for the Irish in three seasons, a feat last reached at Notre Dame when coach Lou Holtz did it from 1988-90, a span that included the school-re- cord 23-game winning streak. That history lesson alone shows this season, and the three since 2016, are a collective success and nothing to take for granted, even if the Michi- gan loss still makes 2019 feel like an epic failure to some. "It's just like the last five games we've played," Kelly said about chas- ing down an 11th win in Orlando. "They want to play well. They want to play for each other. "They want to continue to play at a high level." ✦ Sustained Success Changing Program Perception UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Head coach Brian Kelly has led the Fighting Irish to 10 wins for three straight seasons, something that hasn't been accomplished at Notre Dame since 1991‑93, yet perceptions remain mixed about how to define the 2019 season. PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS

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