Notre Dame is a place of high expectations. One need only look at Father Sorin’s prediction that the university would be “a powerful force for good in the world.” Or look at Father Hesburgh’s revolutionary changes to Notre Dame, which set the bar for every university president after him. Or look at the lofty bar set for high school seniors seeking admission, and look at Notre Dame’s 15.8% acceptance rate. Or look at the football program and the constant demand for a 12th national championship.
High expectations pave the way for disappointment, like that experienced by the 84.2% that receive a rejection letter from Notre Dame or by the 31 teams since 1988 who have failed to capture the national crown.
But perhaps more harmful — high expectations can create delusion, like that amongst Notre Dame fans who treated an 11-2 season like a failure, who call for Brian Kelly’s firing and who do not recognize the position the program is in. Notre Dame football is a perennial top-10 team in college football and is close to winning a national championship.
Ten wins is no small feat, and the Irish have won 10 or more games in three straight seasons for the first time since 1991-93, when they were very much in the national championship conversation.
The year after Tyrone Willingham’s first 10-win season in 2002, Notre Dame went 5-7. The year after Charlie Weis’ first 10-win season in 2006, the Irish dropped to 3-9. Brian Kelly went 9-4 in 2013 after a 12-1 season in 2012, then 4-8 in 2016 after a 10-3 2015. Establishing a consistent winning culture takes time, and Notre Dame has finally done it for the first time since the glory days.
Such a stretch isn’t just impressive for Notre Dame standards, either. Only eight teams have won 10 or more games in the past three seasons in the entire FBS: Alabama, Boise State, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and UCF. Six of those teams have made the College Football Playoff, excluding Boise State and UCF due to their significantly weaker conferences and schedules. Notre Dame is in elite company.
And no, winning over 10 games and making the playoff is not Brian Kelly’s “ceiling.” The best is yet to come because the best players have yet to come. For the first time since 2013, Notre Dame landed two five-star recruits in the class of 2020. Not only that, but running back Chris Tyree and wide receiver Jordan Johnson bring some much-needed speed and explosiveness to Notre Dame’s offense. Combine those two with returning receivers Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin and Lawrence Keys III, and Notre Dame’s upcoming offense will look as fast as it ever has under Kelly.
Additionally, Kelly will work with the same starting quarterback for a third straight season in Ian Book, a luxury he has not yet been afforded in his coaching tenure at Notre Dame.
The Irish have had a championship-level defense for two years now. With coordinator Clark Lea returning and an experienced front seven led by fifthyear senior defensive linemen Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes as well as linebackers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White, they should pick up where they left off. Even with the secondary losing three starters, safety Kyle Hamilton returns and Notre Dame also adds a graduate transfer from Ohio State in Isaiah Pryor.
Notre Dame’s best teams are almost here.
Now to return to the pressing question — when? When can Notre Dame actually win a national championship? Answer: the next two years.
Notre Dame is known for their tough regular season schedule. Due to their lack of a conference championship game, the Irish have to stack their 12-game season with the USCs, Michigans and Georgias of the college football world. But in the next two seasons, their opponents look more manageable than usual.
In 2020, Notre Dame’s biggest games are Wisconsin and Clemson. They will play their yearly rivals including USC and Stanford — both of which are struggling programs right now. In 2021, Clemson comes off the schedule. Notre Dame will play Wisconsin again and add middling opponents in Florida State and Cincinnati.
Both seasons present the real possibility of going 11-1 or 12-0. With a close loss to Clemson or an undefeated season, the Irish put themselves in a favorable position to make the playoff. Once there, they will have the big-game experience and talent to compete for it all.
If 2020 or 2021 don’t work out, however, 2022 and 2023 look much less promising. Notre Dame will have to face both Clemson and Ohio State in both seasons, and neither program seems to be on the decline any time soon. Only then can the conversation about Kelly’s ceiling really take place.
Until then, be patient. The best is yet to come … and almost here.
The views of this author are not necessarily the views of Scholastic magazine.