Notre Dame Football: 3 Ways the Fighting Irish Are Improving Under Brian Kelly
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The jury was still out on Brian Kelly coming into this season. He knows that coaching the Notre Dame Fighting Irish carries with it the constant pressure to excel. So in what ways has this program improved under their third-year coach?
It's hard to argue with their 4-0 start and No. 9 ranking in the AP Poll. They've beat two ranked teams in a row, even if those wins weren't pretty.
That's usually the sign of a team that's going somewhere. Being able to pull out games when you're not at your best is crucial to keeping yourself in contention for a national championship.
The next step for the Irish comes Saturday night at Soldier Field, when they renew a once fierce rivalry with Miami (FL). That presents another prime time opportunity for them to show the nation that they're for real.
Let's take a look at a few reasons Kelly has this team improving not only on a year-to-year basis, but also week-to-week.
1. He's Helped to Limit Turnovers
Kelly's play-calling has been much more low-risk in 2012.
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Notre Dame's offense hasn't exactly been lighting it up. They've only scored 53 points over their last three games.
However, the one thing they aren't doing this season is beating themselves.
This was a team that combined for 10 turnovers in their first two losses last year against South Florida and Michigan. The same thing haunted them in their bowl loss to Florida State.
In response to that, as Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune reported:
The general demolishing applied by Notre Dame's defense to Notre Dame's opponents allows Brian Kelly to call a more conservative, catastrophe-proof game plan. It's just that the Irish coach would sort of rather not do that.
Kelly knows that he's going to need more big plays from this group if they hope to beat teams like Oklahoma and USC on the road. He's just glad that that's their focus now, instead of how to stop from giving games away.
2. Their Credibility Based on Strength of Schedule
The winner of Notre Dame vs. Miami won three straight national championships between 1987-1989.
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Lots of people involved with a college football program have a say when it's time to schedule non-conference games. In Notre Dame's case, since they're an independent, they have the freedom to play whoever they want to.
With that said, head coaches have a lot of input in this process. Brian Kelly knew how hard the 2012 schedule was on paper, but he still relished the challenge.
In fact, according to FBSchedules.com, the Irish have the toughest slate of games in the nation.
It continues this week, as Notre Dame and Miami seem excited to renew this historic matchup. Now it's unlikely this rivalry will ever reach the level it was at in the '80s, with their 1988 meeting famously dubbed as "Catholics vs. Convicts."
But it's still another game for Notre Dame against a well-known school, even though Miami's program has fallen off as of late.
Factor that in with a trip to Norman to play the Sooners and the season finale at USC, and you have a schedule that no one can poke holes in. While lots of schools will set up cupcake, non-conference games, the Irish seem intent on battling the best from around the country.
3. He's Instilled an Expectation of Winning
Kelly earned his shot with Notre Dame based on the success he had at Cincinnati.
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Notre Dame's program had reached an all-time low under Charlie Weis. After losing nine games for the first time in school history in 2007, he followed that up with back-to-back 6-6 finishes.
Kelly, unlike Weis, had plenty of head coaching experience before accepting the Notre Dame job. He has had success at every stop he's been at.
He took a Cincinnati program that's hardly renowned as a football power and led them to a 12-0 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance in '09. There's no reason to think he can't do the same for the Irish.
The best example of his impact on the team thus far has to be the Michigan win two weeks ago.
Both offenses in that game looked inept. Yet, Kelly kept his guys focused and got a huge performance out of his defense to pull out a close one.
There's no way Notre Dame wins that game under Weis. Kelly himself has an expectation to win, and it's starting to rub off on his players.