The saying goes that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. So having said that, let's use statistics to assess Notre Dame's progression (and regression) compared to the 2009 season.
It's easy to get bogged down in numbers so if you're looking for a quick run-down, skip to the conclusion below.
The loss of Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen (along with the installation of a new offensive scheme) had a definite impact on the Irish. Overall Notre Dame gained 73 fewer yards per game and 0.8 yards per play less in 2010 compared to 2009 (378.25 ypg, 5.55 yards per play 2010; 451.75 ypg, 6.39 ypp 2009). Comparatively, the Irish were eighth in total offense in 2009, 63rd in 2010.
Rush offense was largely unchanged: 3.96 yards per carry, 120.83 yards per game in 2010. 3.84 ypc, 128.25 ypg in 2009.
Production dropped in passing offense as we would expect. Passing offense in 2010: 29th, 257.42 yards per game and 6.83 yards per attempt. In 2009, the Irish were fifth with 323.50 ypg, 8.68 ypa. That's almost two yards more per attempt.
As a result of the drop in passing offense, the Irish scored about four points fewer per game in 2010. Scoring offense in 2010 73rd, 25.72 points per game. In 2009, they were 32nd with 30.08 ppg.
What is a realistic goal for Notre Dame next year?
The most significant change in the defense was in points given up. Five points and 40 yards per game less were given up by Notre Dame in 2010. The unit really came on late in the season, playing extremely well against Tulsa, Utah, Army and Southern Cal. Total defense 2010: 49th, 353.17 ypg, 20.50 ppg (29th); 2009 86th 397.75 ypg, 25.92 ppg (63rd)
The improvement of the defense was seen in both facets, pass and rush defense.
Opponents completed a slightly higher percentage of passes against the Irish (61.9 vs 58.06) but passed for almost two yards fewer per attempt in 2010 (6.19 in 2010 vs 8.01 in 2009). This led to a 22 yards per game drop in 2010 from 2009 (205.92 ypg 2010, 227.50 ypg 2009).
And per rush, Notre Dame gave up 4.01 yards compared to 4.75 from a year ago.
Turnovers and Penalties
One of the biggest keys for a winning team is to protect the ball. Notre Dame shot themselves in the foot several times this year in losing the turnover battle, especially in key spots. Overall turnover margin in 2010 was minus-0.25, good for 73rd in Division I compared to plus-0.42 (29th) in 2009. Essentially this means in 2010 over a four-game span, the Irish had one more turnover than their opponents.
Notre Dame is one of 16 teams with a negative turnover margin to have a winning record (59 total teams with a negative margin). Contrast this with positive turnover margin teams: 40 of 57 teams with a positive margin have winning records.
Penalties were a slight improvement in 2010: 4.58 penalties per game for a 42.58 yard average compared with 6.2 ppg, 55.5 ypg in 2009.
Third Down and Red Zone Conversions
Third down conversion percentage mirrored the overall offense and defense. The offense declined while the defense improved. The offense's conversion percentage dropped from 41.03 percent to 37.5 percent. The defense improved from 39.49 percent to 35.08 percent in getting off the field on third down.
In the red zone, the defense really stepped up, allowing touchdowns in only 42 percent of trips, down from 56 percent in 2009. The offense was largely just as effective in 2009 (56 percent in 2010, 61 percent in 2009).
Overall Number Crunching
The offense dropped off from a passing perspective compared to last year. Rushing was unchanged.
The defense improved against the run and the pass, giving up 5 fewer points compared to 2009. However, the drop in offensive production (about 4 points per game) offset this change.
Red zone defense was excellent, holding opponents to only 42 percent touchdowns versus 56 percent in 2009.
Penalties were improved but turnovers hurt the Irish this year.
The final three games have given even the most cynical fans hope for next year. It's arguably the most inspired Notre Dame team this fan has seen in over a decade.