Halfway through his second season at the pressure-packed helm of Notre Dame football, Brian Kelly has experienced horrible tragedy and made almost every mistake imaginable.
From the death of Declan Sullivan to horrible public admission that the players he recruited were on a different level than those he inherited, Kelly has done a lot in creating the minefield he has to navigate daily.
After finishing last season with a four-game winning streak and a lopsided bowl victory over one-time-rival Miami in the Sun Bowl, a lot was expected of the 2011 Fighting Irish.
In the opening game against South Florida, the team followed its coach’s lead by making every mistake in the book during a game that saw the stadium evacuated twice for weather-related issues. Kelly had a quick hook and yanked Dayne Crist at half giving him no choice but to go with Tommy Rees for the rest of the season. Yes, not just the rest of the game, the rest of the season. Furthermore, in the hearts and minds of many fans and pundits, Rees is not the quarterback of the future or one in the mold to run of Kelly’s spread offense.
And Kelly was then stuck with Rees for the rest of the 2011 campaign.
After blowing the game against Michigan, the Irish were 0-2 to start what was supposed to be a very promising season. Four straight victories quelled some of the anger and anxiety, but a flattening flop against Southern California set the coach and the team back once again, leaving Kelly to scramble, which led to the unfortunate statements about his recruits and the inherited recruits.
After squeaking out a victory against Wake Forest, Notre Dame is 6-3, once again, bowl eligible. However, with the game in Palo Alto looming two days after Thanksgiving, it is safe to say that the best ND can hope to do is 8-4. And that is not what the Domers were hoping for in 2011.
Since Lou Holtz left, Notre Dame has done less than a stellar job in hiring Bob Davie, George O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis. Yes, Weis, he of his everlasting schematic advantage.
With the string of horrible hires, Notre Dame fans can be trigger-happy these days. However, Brian Kelly has the same record as Lou Holtz had at the exact same point of their respective Notre Dame tenures. So, it is premature to suggest he is a failure, or to draw a firm conclusion on his future.
Kelly has freshman quarterback Everett Golson that he handpicked to run his spread option. One has to assume that the only reason he’s yet to see the field this season is to save his red-shirt season. He will have another season of his recruits, his RKGs, or right kind of guys, as he likes to call them. Many players will have another year in his system. Everyone will have another year to mature.
However, the Irish will most likely lose their two best players in Michael Floyd and Manti Te’o to the NFL. Also, the 2012 schedule includes Miami, Oklahoma, and Southern Cal.
The loss of Michael Floyd will be huge as he is arguably the best receiver in college football and possibly a top-ten pick at the NFL Selection Meeting.
While there are positive signs for this team moving forward, a lot will be expected out of Kelly and his squad next year. Every great ND coach won the National Championship in his third year on the job. Granted, the landscape of college football has changed drastically in the past 30 years, but winning is still plausible, possible and preferred in South Bend.
Brian Kelly must finish strong again, and get his team into the BCS discussion next season. If not, his seat will get hotter and the spotlight will get brighter. The haters will multiply exponentially, and his task could be tougher than he ever thought.
He is, by no means, done. His past performance proves he is capable of building a consistent winner. However, he has never done so on this size of stage. The next 12 months will be the most crucial in his professional career, but they will go a long way in determine his future under the Golden Dome.