There are two approaches to Notre Dame’s disaster of a 2016 season: One is that, simply put, it’s a disaster. Notre Dame only has a six percent chance of winning out, meaning it’s probably staring down a 4-8 or 5-7 record.
That’s unacceptable at a place where a championship, or at least playoff contention, is the expectation going into every year.
But the glass-half-full viewpoint being pushed by coach Brian Kelly is that Notre Dame’s six losses have been by a total of just 29 points, which can be taken as an indication not a whole lot needs to change for 2017 to be a success.
“I think you have to look at how your team is playing and you've got to look at the overall (of), what's your football team look like, what's their preparation like, how are they preparing, what's their attitude like,” Kelly said. “And you know, it's hard for me to want to make any significant changes. I know we lost the football game (to Navy), and the first thing is to look to make some changes.
“But we've got a lot of inexperienced players that are gaining great experience. And you know, we're still growing up, and I love the way we compete and play hard. We've lost six close games that easily could have went our way, and we're going to keep battling and fighting.
“It's hard for me in these circumstances to think that major changes need to be made, other than continue to do what we're doing, and we'll break through.”
There’s plenty to parse in that quote, but it’s mostly an effort by Kelly to push his message that turning those close losses into wins won’t take much. A team that’s giving significant minutes to loads of freshmen and sophomores should benefit from that experience in 2017, when guys like Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, C.J. Sanders, Equanimeous St. Brown, Jerry Tillery and Asmar Bilal, among others, become upperclassmen. Freshmen Kevin Stepherson, Chase Claypool, Daelin Hayes, Jamir Jones and what is almost the entire secondary (Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr., Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott) will have a full year of experience under their belts next year, too.
But is it really as simple as getting young players a year of experience to flip those six losses by eight points or fewer into wins next year?
An underperforming offensive line isn’t part of that group that will flip from underclassmen to upperclassmen status, with all five of its starters either juniors or seniors. It’s their first time playing together, of course, but Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern/Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars haven’t been the strong backbone Notre Dame’s offense has needed. They were consistently beat when Navy — with all its undersized defensive players — rushed five on Saturday. This is a group that has to take a major step forward and could benefit from personnel changes in the offseason.
Notre Dame’s special teams units have made far too many mistakes for that to be deemed a cog of the Irish that doesn’t need a major change.
And the defense still needs to hire a full-time coordinator, even if the Kelly, Mike Elston and Greg Hudson triumvirate temporarily put a lid on a defense that was atrocious in its first four games under Brian VanGorder.
There’s certainly more that needs to be changed beyond those few core failures in 2016. But in saying there don’t need to be major changes, Kelly is going all in on himself and his own ability to turn things around in 2017 — and that doesn’t mean an 8-4 or 9-3 season, but that has to mean at least 10 wins and legitimate playoff contention.
“Next year is this year,” Kelly said. “We have so many guys that are going to be learning how to do the things right every single day this year. And they are doing that.
“I mean, I love the way our guys compete. We need a little bit better coaching. We need a little bit better playing in certain areas. That's going to obviously prove to be very, very important for us in the next year and the next coming years.”