Beating USC is extra sweet
To say Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly's freshman season in South Bend was eventful would be a gross understatement.
Yet despite all the downs, he enters his second season with the Irish riding a four-game winning streak with the taste of success lingering stronger to start a new season than any Irish coach since Lou Holtz in 1992.
Expectations are always high at Notre Dame, but now that he's shown he can win they are even higher. But are they absurd? Just how foretelling would a sophomore slump or sensation be?
Past performance is not a guarantee of future events, but a review of Notre Dame's last eight coaches sheds some light on the subject.
Speaking of expectations, Ara Parseghian set an almost impossible standard for an encore performance during his first year. His freshman campaign stunned the nation as he jolted a 2-7 Irish team back to life and nearly to a national championship.
Anything short of a title in 1965 was bound to be a letdown, but the Irish still finished with only two losses to top-ranked Michigan State and fourth-ranked Purdue. Parseghian's Notre Dame squad led by defensive dominance, allowing only seven points per game and had a total season point differential of plus-197, just slightly behind the previous season mark of plus-210.
While coming up short in '65, the Notre Dame legend went on to lead the Irish to the national championship the following season and then once more in 1973.
Dan Devine inherited a cabinet stocked with talent after Parseghian resigned following the 1974 season, and he managed to keep the ship afloat, finishing 8-3 his inaugural season. A second consecutive three-loss season in '76 could have been seen as a failure, but Devine's team was improving staying right at the key plus-100 mark of season point differential.
The following year, he too secured his place in Notre Dame lore as he won a national title and consistently kept the Irish near the top of the polls through his short tenure in South Bend.
Gerry Faust had some work to do his second year after bringing the first losing season (and only the second of four or more losses) to South Bend since 1963 during his inaugural year on the Irish sideline. The improvement was marginal at best.
The 1982 Notre Dame team finished above .500, but the season point differential was well under plus-100 at a paltry plus-32. Faust did not fare much better over his remaining three years at Notre Dame, resigning with a career record of 30-26-1 and setting the standard for much of the head coaching incompetence that was to follow.
Leading the charge
Like Gerry Faust, Lou Holtz's first season as head coach at Notre Dame ended with a 5-6 record. Unlike Faust, Holtz showed significant progress in his second year, rattling off eight wins in his first nine games before slipping in the final three games of the season to finish 8-4.
The team continued its upward trajectory in point differential, jumping from plus-80 Holtz's first year to plus-121 in 1987, the level commonly inhabited by Dan Devine. Like Devine (and Parseghian), Holtz too had a capstone third year with Notre Dame's 11th national title.
Bob Davie ascended to the Notre Dame head coach role after serving as a defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz. Following an uninspiring 7-6 first season, Davie won nine of his first 10 games in 1998, including a surprise upset of the defending national co-champion Michigan Wolverines in the season opener.
However, arch-rival Southern Cal shut out the Irish in their last regular-season game, and Notre Dame lost the subsequent bowl game to Georgia Tech to end the season 9-3 with a point differential of plus-80. It was the beginning of the fluctuating seasons that would define Davie's career and ultimately lead to his dismissal following the 2001 season.
The shine started to dull on Tyrone Willingham's head coaching tenure at the end of his first season and by the end of his second completely eroded.
The 5-7 season of 2003 included some of the ugliest losses in Irish history: four drubbings by more than 25 points, including shutouts by Michigan on the road and Florida State at home.
Charlie Weis earned a second consecutive BCS bid during his second season with a 10-3 finish. However, the miracle comeback needed to beat lowly UCLA and season-ending blowout losses against Southern Cal and LSU revealed some serious chinks in the Irish armor.
The plus-146 point differential from 2005 dwindled to plus-94 in 2006 as the leaky Irish defense negated any schematic advantage. Despite his inexplicable contract extension after just a handful of games, this became the theme of the Weis era which concluded with an underwhelming record of 35-27.
No excuses. Where have we heard that before?
In a tumultuous first season, Brian Kelly's Irish showcased both disaster and brilliance. They ended on the latter, including victories over the arch-rival Trojans and nemesis Miami Hurricanes.
Kelly's second act is a large question mark that will depend on his ability to continuously adapt and prepare his team, which will not sneak up on anyone this year. The team has both talent and experience, so with a relatively weak schedule, Kelly's list of fallback excuses will be very short.