2011 Notre Dame Football: Stepping Back into the National Spotlight

Jim JonesContributor IIIAugust 11, 2011

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 11: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish waits to enter the field with his team including Armando Allen, Jr. #5, Carlo Calabrese #44 and Ethan Johnson #90 before a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 11, 2010 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan defeated Notre Dame 28-24. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ask a lot of college football fans if they are getting excited for the upcoming football season and they’ll say they have been waiting all year. Ask some Notre Dame fans and they’ll tell you they have been waiting for two decades. 

Except for a few flashes of occasional brilliance, the proud and storied Notre Dame program has been a perennial under-achiever in recent decades. But with Brian Kelly leading the Fighting Irish onto the field in 2011, the Domers look ready to reclaim their glory. 

In typical Notre Dam fashion, Brian Kelly came under a lot of fire last year. Some tough losses, recruits who pulled out of their commitments, and the tragic death of student staffer Declan Sullivan offered a fan base with high expectations a lot of reasons to complain. With the exception of Sullivan’s tragic death, however these setbacks should have been expected. 

Recruits are fickle creatures. Picking a college and program is a big decision, and these are young men, so the occasional change of heart should be expected. Meanwhile, Kelly had to install a high octane spread offense and had to do so without a clear option at quarterback while contending with a weak defense. 

He contended, and he succeeded. Despite suffering three brutal losses in a row, Coach Kelly was able to right the ship. An eight win season isn’t where Notre Dame wants to be, but the continued development of skill and flashes of brilliance are proof that the team is heading in the right direction. 

Coach Kelly’s system will work at Notre Dame. It has already worked brilliantly at Cincinnati, Central Michigan, and Grand Valley State University. As recruits flow in that fit the system, the Fighting Irish will only continue to improve. 

With the time current players have now had to learn the system, we can also expect to see a big step forward this season. Notre Dame has a tough three game opener schedule, with visits from an always feisty South Florida squad, a strong Michigan State team, and the storied Wolverines. Michigan should be somewhat down this year, and if the Irish go in focused they can pull that win out. USC will be good, but beatable. Both games would be key victories for the season and could determine the difference between a mediocre bowl and a New Years Day bowl. 

The Fighting Irish will likely drop one of the three games but should be able to pull out two wins. Pull out all three, and the Irish are progressing faster quicker than a lot people would have thought possible. 

After those opening games, the possibility of Notre Dame winning every game up until the season ending showdown with Stanford is very real. If Stanford is as good as they were last year, they’ll be tough to beat, but upset the Cardinals and Notre Dame will find itself in the BCS. 

Either way, a New Year’s Day bowl is a very real possibility, which would be great results for a team that has been struggling just to get a bowl invite over the last few years.

Coach Kelly likely doesn’t have a National Championship caliber team just yet, but with recruits flowing in and a strong system taking root, the Fighting Irish will be in good position to restore their program to its full potential in the coming years.