The Brian Kelly tenure at Notre Dame has been a volley of emotions over the course of the last eight years as the program manages to stay just close enough to the forefront of college football to keep Kelly employed but just far enough away to put him at risk regularly.
Earlier this week, the NCAA vacated 21 wins from the 2012 and 2013 seasons, leaving Kelly officially with 48 career wins as he enters his ninth season at the helm. That’s just 5.3 wins per season on average, and while nobody is forgetting the 12 wins in 2012 that earned them a title berth, the whitewashing does highlight Kelly’s failures since in a roundabout way.
Kelly willingly admitted that the Irish hadn’t recruited enough depth over the course of the last several recruiting cycles after signing the No. 10 class in the country earlier this month. That inability routinely leaves Notre Dame in a tough position physically when they get to November and it’s cost them chances to contend for College Football Playoff appearances recently.
Without those wins in 2012 on the official record, Kelly doesn’t have a lot of success to lean into during his time at Notre Dame. The past season was one of his two most successful (Fiesta Bowl appearance in Jan. 2016) outside of the year they lost the national championship to Alabama with 10 wins and a New Year’s Day win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Other than that, they’ve got three 8-win seasons, a 9-win season and then a statistical outlying 4-win season and 10-win season. And the 9-win season was also wiped out by the NCAA.
Even if we erase those two years of vacated wins completely, that leaves Kelly as an 8-win per season coach at Notre Dame. That’s clearly not getting the job done and it takes a seat we perpetually assume to be warm and coats it in accelerant, making it a truly combustible post.
The Irish bring back a stellar defense in 2018 and an offense that will have to plug some holes after losing two potential first-round offensive linemen, the star running back and wide receiver, and then having a series of dismissals further destroy depth at those skill positions. Those circumstances have created seesawing expectations from a fanbase stuck between their current reality and their past.
As Kelly approaches a decade at Notre Dame, the expectation is that he delivers on the championship promise the Irish have shown in several Octobers during his time in South Bend. Another November collapse could spell the end, and that all circles back to the strength he builds in the final quarter of the roster.
Notre Dame signed 27 players in the Class of 2018. It’s a number that currently puts them over the scholarship limit of 85 players (89), but attrition has become a fact of life and the Irish have been stuck closer to 80 by the time the dust settles in recent years.
So, even though he might be uncomfortable overbooking his roster like it’s a Delta flight from Atlanta to Chicago, he’s beginning to understand he doesn’t really have a choice. Notre Dame has to solve the depth issues that have served as Kelly’s biggest failure and that means you have to account for losses even before they happen in order to stack a full deck.
They’ve done that with this recruiting class, but the unfortunate reality is that it could be too little too late. Because if the Irish don’t win in 2018, there might not be another chance to finally start building the back-of-roster depth that helps win championships and the vacated wins only stand to accelerate the process of Kelly’s removal.
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