In the last decade, only four teams have fallen short of bowl eligibility and the next year finished in the top 12 of the final College Football Playoff/BCS rankings. That’s not exactly a promising trend for a Notre Dame team that is likely to miss a bowl in 2016 but returns a load of talent in 2017 that will hope to rebound back into playoff contention.
Those four teams: 2005-2006 Arkansas (4-7 in 2005, 10-2/No. 12 in 2006), 2012-2013 Missouri (5-7 in 2011, 11-2/No. 8 BCS in 2012), 2012-2013 Auburn (3-9 in 2011, 12-1/No. 2 BCS in 2012) and 2013-2014 TCU (4-8 in 2013, 11-1/No. 6 in College Football Playoff in 2012).
Four other teams turned around six-win seasons into top-12 regular season finishes: 2006-2007 Kansas (6-6 to 11-1/No. 8 BCS), 2009-2010 Michigan State (6-7 to 11-1, No. 9 BCS), 2010-2011 Ohio State (6-7 to 12-0, though the Buckeyes were not eligible for the BCS in 2011) and 2014-2015 North Carolina (6-7 to 11-2/No. 10 College Football Playoff) Michigan State, Ohio State and North Carolina all played in bowl games the year before turning things around.
But since Notre Dame will need a significant improvement in its play to get to six wins, let’s just look at the four teams that turned bowl-ineligible seasons into what would’ve been or were playoff contention (the College Football Playoff debuted in 2014).
Arkansas’ 4-7 season came in Houston Nutt’s 8th year in Fayetteville and on the heels of a 5-6 record in 2004. But under Nutt, Arkansas hadn’t finished in the AP top 25 since 1998 and 1999 before rising as high as fifth in 2006, winning the SEC West and settling for a 10-win season. 2006’s success was powered by on of the best backfields seen in recent college football history (Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis) as well as a defense that improved from 54th to 24th in points allowed per game.
Mizzou took its lumps in Year 1 as an SEC school in 2012, but the steady hand of Gary Pinkel — and an elite defensive line led by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy — propelled the Tigers to an SEC East title in 2012.
Like Mizzou, TCU needed a little bit to adjust to joining a new conference under a longtime, highly successful coach. After going 7-6 following its jump from the Mountain West to the Big 12 in 2012, TCU slipped to 4-8 in 2013. Gary Patterson adjusted to his new surroundings, though, and oversaw the ascendances of quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson to power a high-scoring offense that torched the Big 12 for two consecutive years.
And then there’s Auburn, which fired championship-winning coach Gene Chizik (and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder) after a disastrous 2012 season and brought in Gus Malzahn, whose spread-option offense mesmerized college football on its way to an SEC title and appearance in the BCS Championship.
Given their new conference/new coach circumstances, Mizzou, TCU and Auburn aren’t great comparisons to where Notre Dame stands right now. Nutt never came close to the kind of success Kelly has had (2012 and 2015) and his 10-win 2005 season was an outlier in his tenure with the Razorbacks.
So the worry for Notre Dame is that if it’s not good enough to reach a bowl in 2016, it’s unlikely it’ll be good enough — even with at the least 16 returning starters on both sides of the ball, maybe more — to contend for the College Football Playoff in 2017. The glass-half-full viewpoint is that Notre Dame's six current losses have been by a combined 29 points, and that a more experienced roster next year will be able to flip those defeats into wins.
But if the Irish are able to accomplish that turnaround from a seven- or eight-loss season, it won’t be unprecedented in recent history, but it would be a rare occurrence.