Notre Dame Football: Year 3 the Charm Again for Brian Kelly

Matt SmithCorrespondent IIIDecember 9, 2012

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08:  Head coach Brian Kelly (R) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 21-17.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

You would think we’d have learned our lesson by now.

Despite it being the magic third season for both Brian Kelly and Notre Dame coaches, it was presumed that nine wins would be the high watermark for this year’s Fighting Irish. Three months later, Brian Kelly is laughing all the way to the BCS Championship Game.

In 2004, Kelly took over a Central Michigan program that was one of the worst in the MAC. He improved the Chippewas to 4-7 and 6-5 in his first two seasons, but entered the 2006 season with a freshman quarterback in Dan LeFevour. Instead of an understandable slide back to a losing record, Central Michigan won its first MAC title in 12 years.

After defeating Ohio in the conference championship game, Kelly was on to bigger and better things at Cincinnati.

Mark Dantonio had led a solid, three-year rebuilding project in the Queen City,  before leaving for Michigan State, including a transition from Conference USA to the Big East, so Kelly walked into a much better situation than he had in Mount Pleasant. A 10-win season in 2007 saw the Bearcats win their second-straight bowl game, and 2008 brought the program its first Big East title and an Orange Bowl berth.

Despite most of its offensive talent returning, the 2009 Bearcats brought back almost nothing on defense under the tutelage of a young, new defensive coordinator named Bob Diaco. Games with conference favorites Pittsburgh, Rutgers and USF were all on the road, as was a trip to Corvallis to face Oregon State.

The Bearcats were not ranked to start the season, but that changed quickly after a blowout win at Rutgers to open the season. 11 wins later, Cincinnati was 12-0, led by a top-flight offense and a surprisingly respectable defense led by Diaco. The team was just inches away from playing for the national title had Texas kicker Hunter Lawrence’s last-second field goal in the Big 12 Championship Game gone just a bit farther left.

Six days after the Longhorns left Cincinnati on the outside looking in at the BCS Championship Game, Kelly packed up and headed to Notre Dame, asked to restore glory to the nation’s most storied program after a decade-plus of underachieving.

While a 16-10 record in his first two seasons didn’t leave the Irish fanbase jumping for joy, there were positive signs. The team was playing the best defense it had played in almost a decade. Recruiting was being done from the inside out rather than skill position-heavy classes under Charlie Weis.

Physically, the Irish looked like an elite football team again.

Despite the tangible progress, 2012 wasn’t supposed to be Notre Dame’s year. Top-10 teams Michigan, Oklahoma and USC were all on the schedule, with only the Wolverines having to come to South Bend. There was a game overseas in Ireland, as well as double digit-win teams Michigan State, Stanford and BYU.

All-time leading receiver Michael Floyd had to be replaced, the secondary was a mess and budding star defensive end Aaron Lynch left the program during spring practice.

Sophomore Everett Golson showed flashes of being a great quarterback during the spring, but he wasn’t progressing rapidly enough to the point where it seemed that 2012 would be his breakout year. That still appeared to be the case until Oct. 27 in Norman, when Golson played arguably his best game of the year, playing a smart, turnover-free game in one of the most hostile environments in college football to lead the Irish to a 30-13 upset win over Oklahoma.

After the wild chain of events on Nov. 17—one of those days that makes college football the greatest sport in the world—Notre Dame vaulted to No. 1 in the nation on the heels of stunning losses by top-ranked Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon.

Now, the Irish sit just four weeks away from playing for their first national title in 24 years when they meet Alabama on Jan. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Kelly did it again. For the second time in four years, he’s taken a team unranked in the preseason to a 12-0 regular season. Unlike in 2009, when Texas denied Kelly’s chances to play Alabama in the BCS Championship Game, he now gets the chance to put the finishing touches on the season with a victory over the Crimson Tide.

Most are doubting Notre Dame’s chances to take down mighty Alabama and end the SEC’s six-year reign over college football. Kelly’s been doubted many times before, and more often than not, he’s left those doubters shaking their heads.

If he can do it one more time next month, Brian Kelly will have officially made believers out of all of those doubters.