Those college football fans who say one loss doesn’t ruin a season certainly aren’t fans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Fair or not, the 2011 season went up in smoke this past Saturday night for the Irish, who suffered a debilitating 31-17 setback to their hated arch rivals, the USC Trojans.
With the defeat, Notre Dame is now a meager and disappointing 4-3, certainly not the record fans envisioned when the season began. Fans had their eyes on a return to a prestigious BCS bowl.
Those dreams are officially dashed—at least this year.
But all hope is not lost, as a return trip to a major bowl will come sooner than many people think for the Irish.
Here are five reasons the Irish will return to a BCS bowl game in 2012.
Saturday’s game against the Trojans produced mixed results for Notre Dame’s group of freshmen players. George Atkinson III officially became a kick-returning prodigy, as he recorded his second return touchdown of the season.
On the flip side, highly touted defensive players Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams struggled against a physical Trojans offensive line. While the inconsistent play can be maddening for Irish fans to watch, they must remember these kids were playing high school ball this time last year.
There are going to be growing pains for these talented freshmen, and the only way they’re going to get better is through playing time, as opposed to sitting on the sidelines.
Despite the setback some players suffered Saturday, many of the freshmen have shown lots of promise.
Give these kids time to mature through the end of this season, and head coach Brian Kelly and his team may reap the benefits in 2012.
Lost in the shuffle of Saturday’s loss to USC is the fact the Irish just enjoyed their biggest and most star-studded recruiting weekend ever. Several highly touted college prospects were in attendance for the game, led by the nation’s top high school quarterback, Gunner Kiel from Indianapolis.
While the loss didn’t help Notre Dame in impressing the recruits, one loss doesn’t mean they’re going to stay away from South Bend, either.
Star linebacker Manti Te’o was in attendance to witness fans hurling snowballs at Irish players after their ugly 24-23 loss to lowly Syracuse back in 2008, yet he still ended up in a Notre Dame uniform.
Even if Notre Dame misses out on some of this weekend’s prospects, the cupboard for 2012 is looking very promising at the moment. They’ve attracted the temporary commitments of several four-star players, led by the cornerback duo of Tee Shepard and Ronald Darby.
The 2012 class—combined with the talented 2011 class—gives Brian Kelly a solid core to build his team around.
Some pundits say teams with two quarterbacks have no quarterbacks.
Clearly, those pundits haven’t met Brian Kelly. His offenses usually thrive in a two-quarterback system.
Kelly and his Cincinnati Bearcats rode the quarterback duo of Tony Pike and Zach Collaros to an undefeated regular season back in 2009. These days, he has another duo emerging for the present and future in Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.
Although the musical chair situation at quarterback has upset some Irish fans, it has allowed Kelly to pinpoint just which quarterbacks are right for the job.
Both Rees and Hendrix bring different dimensions to the offense. Rees is an accurate passer on short crossing and timing routes, while Hendrix’s athleticism and running ability allows for a much-needed change of pace.
While their play hasn’t paid off this year, it will be interesting to see what this duo—along with the Wildcat services of Everett Golson—is able to do with a full season under its belt in 2012.
This point is quite the ironic one. Previous Irish head coaches were able to have impressive early success thanks to players they didn’t even recruit.
Tyrone Willingham’s Irish coaching career got off to a quick start behind the play of Bob Davie’s players.
Instead of having similar success with Weis’s players, Kelly’s Irish tenure thus far has been mediocre, posting a 12-8 record as head coach.
This could possibly be attributed to the fact that Kelly still is trying to integrate Weis’s pro-style offensive recruits into his spread system.
Obviously, a great coach tweaks his system to fit his personnel, and Kelly is trying to do that. But it will be intriguing to see what Kelly can do with his offensive play-calling once he gets another class of his own recruits into South Bend next year.
After a poor 4-3 start, Brian Kelly’s hot seat is already feeling slightly toasty. After Saturday’s debacle against USC, some fans are labeling Kelly as a whiny narcissist, a coach who flips out on his players and lacks composure in tense situations.
Is that really true, though?
I doubt fans were disrespecting Kelly this badly when he was leading Division II Grand Valley State to consecutive national championships or when he guided Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season in 2009.
Despite the slow start to his Irish career, I’m just not buying this hype that Kelly suddenly forgot how to build up a winning program.
His sample size at two other schools is too big to ignore, and he and his staff have already shown glimpses that Notre Dame is heading in the right direction.
The Irish ended last season on a four-game winning streak. The team’s strength and conditioning is immensely improved under Paul Longo. The quality recruiting classes are starting to pile up for Kelly and his staff.
And despite the struggles recently, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has proven—in stretches—that he’s the right man coaching the defense.
Clearly, 2011 was a bit premature to make those BCS-type predictions for the Irish, but that was obvious even before the season began.
Don’t be surprised if 2012 is really the year when Notre Dame gets back to a BCS bowl.