Reasons for both optimism and major concern for Kelly’s Irish

Photo: Matt Cashore/AP

It was a great time to be a Notre Dame fan. When the season began, stadium renovations, a talented roster, and the opportunity to wipe the slate clean after an embarrassing smudge on the tradition of one of College Football’s most prestigious programs were all reasons for optimism. At first, that optimism gave way to pleasant surprise, but after Saturday’s loss, there is room for major concern.

The Reasons for Optimism

The Irish weren’t just winning–they were dominating on their way to convincing wins over the likes of Michigan State, USC, and North Carolina State. Irish fans were sold on the fact that the days of the “same old Irish” were gone. This was a new team that revived the enthusiasm of a fan base frustrated after years mired in mediocrity. The criticism of Brian Kelly regressed almost as quickly as the Irish ascended the polls. It seemed Notre Dame had returned to national prominence again.

In a season that has already seen the Irish catapult themselves higher than any critic thought they would, it’s easy to pick out reasons for excitement. For two consecutive weeks, the Irish found themselves third in the College Football Playoff Rankings. No one outside of the Notre Dame locker room saw this miraculous turnaround coming.

The Irish were–and still are–way ahead of schedule. Prior to the season, most set Notre Dame’s over/under for wins around 8. What the Irish have done so far this season is nothing short of incredible and in excess of any rational expectations.

And maybe this is just the beginning. There were wholesale changes in the off-season, including a new strength and conditioning program that is only just beginning to take hold. There were new coordinators on offense, defense, and special teams. Brian Kelly had re-invented himself, delegated responsibilities, and become more of a players coach.

The Irish reaped the benefits of the program’s facelift, but while many will cling to that optimism with good reason, there is still plenty of room for concern and criticism for the Brian Kelly and the Irish.

The Reason for Concern

On the nation’s biggest stage, three games away from a birth in the College Football Playoff, the Irish laid an egg of epic proportions. All season, the Irish preached a message of domination. They weren’t concerned with the score–they were concerned with dominating their opponents. It seemed the Irish had the right mentality to compete with anyone.

The team that showed that mentality through 9 games left its talents in South Bend.

From the jump, the Irish looked shell-shocked. The team that played with poise and confidence in the face of adversity was nowhere to be found. There really is only one good word to sum up Notre Dame’s performance on Saturday: Embarrassing.

Had the Irish gone toe-to-toe with a top-10 team on the road and merely come up short, the narrative would be different. The Irish were unprepared and never adjusted. That’s a major problem.

It’s not completely fair to say “the Irish aren’t far off” or that they’re “not quite ready” after a lackluster performance on Saturday night. Those statements would hold more water if the Irish had lost by a touchdown, or even two. They didn’t–they lost by 33 points.

Offensively, there are some major issues from the top down. The play calling lacks creativity and misdirection. The quarterback has mechanical flaws that manifests itself as an accuracy issue. As a whole, the Irish didn’t show the ability to fight back after it was initially stymied by a fast and talented Miami defensive front. A talented offensive line and a Heisman candidate have bailed out the Irish at times this season. They needed an assist Saturday. It never came.

The Resolution

Where the answers to some of these questions come from is a mystery. In short, from a schematic and personality standpoint, the Irish showed they lacked what it takes to be a legitimate contender in the landscape of college football, at least on Saturday.

It is undoubtedly true that the Irish are a better football team than they were a calendar year ago. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make this particular embarrassing loss any less unacceptable.

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