SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Following the Pinstripe Bowl in December, Brian Kelly reflected on what constitutes a good versus a great season for Notre Dame football.
The Irish head coach looked back on the 9-4 campaign—a season highlighted by wins against USC, Michigan State and Arizona State, yet stained by close losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan.
“A good year that could have been a great year,” Kelly said. “I would say a couple of missed opportunities in some games where we very easily could have been a team that’s looking at double-digit wins,” Kelly said. “And that’s where we want to be every year.”
Yes, double-digit wins. That’s what the Irish—and any program, for that matter—strive for.
“9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame, [but] it’s not what we sign up for every year,” Kelly added.
Heading into 2014, the Irish will look to reach 10 (or more) wins. But what are the realistic expectations for Notre Dame this season?
Before we even begin to look at the Notre Dame team, it’s worth analyzing a schedule that Kelly called “very, very challenging” in late February.
It’s inherently challenging to predict how Notre Dame and its opponents will look when the season begins in late August, much less how the teams will be playing when they meet throughout the regular season. But we’ll make an early attempt at handicapping the matchups.
Florida State will almost undoubtedly be favored against the Irish and rightfully so. The Seminoles are the defending national champions, and they still boast Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
Stanford also should claim an edge over Notre Dame. The Cardinal lost a slew of defensive playmakers but return quarterback Kevin Hogan and wide receivers Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste, among others. Our own Barrett Sallee recently predicted the Top 25 and slotted Stanford at No. 11 (three spots ahead of Notre Dame).
At this early stage, there doesn’t appear to be any overwhelming separation between Notre Dame and the likes of Michigan, Arizona State and USC. The Wolverines and Trojans always pose tough matchups for the Irish, and the Sun Devils hung with the Irish until losing by three points last season.
Between those three teams, Florida State and Stanford, Notre Dame can probably grab two wins. Thus, a three-loss regular season seems in play, as Notre Dame likely holds the edge on paper against Rice, Purdue, Syracuse, North Carolina, Navy, Northwestern and Louisville.
But much of Notre Dame’s fate will be determined by how quickly and effectively the young and inexperienced Irish talent develops.
The defense replaces five starters in the front seven and has been learning a new system under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Still, following the Blue-Gold Game, linebacker Jaylon Smith laid out his high expectations for the group.
“It’s going to be a great year,” Smith said. “We’re coming together. We’re building that culture to where we can all communicate and be as one. We’re young, so that’s really good, it plays a big part when you’re all fetching to get better and continuing trying to learn. We’re going to be nice this year.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Irish are young as well, especially at wide receiver.
So, realistically, a 9-3 regular season seems an appropriate starting point for expectations surrounding Notre Dame in 2014.
There’s plenty of potential. How much the youth shows itself will play a major role for the Irish in trying to reach double-digit wins.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.