Here’s a startling statistic: S&P+, the advanced statistical college football rating system, ranks Notre Dame as the 30th-best team in college football. In 2016.
A quick primer on S&P+ before we dive into it, via Football Outsiders:
The components for S&P+ reflect opponent-adjusted components of four of what Bill Connelly has deemed the Five Factors of college football: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, and finishing drives. (A fifth factor, turnovers, is informed marginally by sack rates, the only quality-based statistic that has a consistent relationship with turnover margins.)
Notre Dame far and away is the highest-rated team to finish under .500 in S&P+, with 5-7 Ole Miss at No. 39 and 5-7 Texas at No. 49. Fellow 4-8 Power Five teams with recent success in UCLA (58), Mizzou (66), Oregon (72) and Duke (78) are well behind the Irish, too. The average S&P+ rank of teams with four wins in 2016 is 91.6, to further illustrate how much of an outlier Notre Dame is.
In 2015, the best 4-8 team by S&P+ was Syracuse at No. 71. Iowa, which finished with 12 wins and was one drive away from making the College Football Playoff, ranked 47th, while Houston, the darlings of the Group of Five last year, ranked 44th.
The average win total for a team ranked No. 30 in S&P+ since 2005 is 7.4.
And by S&P+, 2016 wasn’t Notre Dame’s worst year under Brian Kelly. That would be 2013, in which the Irish went 9-4 but finished 34th in S&P+.
So this begs the question: Huh?
Was Notre Dame actually a good team that experienced horrible luck? Or was this a team that should’ve cruised to bowl eligibility but was mismanaged out of a six-win season?
The mismanagement topic is more anecdotal, but a few points here: Brian VanGorder’s defense was disastrous in the season’s first four weeks, ranking 78th in S&P+. After firing VanGorder, Notre Dame’s defense improved to 33rd in S&P+. That shows that a simpler, less complex scheme likely would’ve benefitted Notre Dame, though it’s worth noting the Irish still went only 3-5 after VanGroder’s firing.
By S&P+’s win expectancy, Notre Dame had a greater than 50 percent chance of beating Duke (62 percent), Stanford (52 percent), Navy (67 percent) and Virginia Tech (56 percent). In a normal year, you’d probably expect Notre Dame to beat Duke and Navy and then split the toss-ups against Stanford and Virginia Tech, which would equal seven wins — right in the average range of teams ranked No. 30 in S&P+ over the last 12 seasons.
But even if you figure Notre Dame loses both toss-ups to top-25 teams in Stanford and Virginia Tech (every other one of Notre Dame’s game’s had a win expectancy below 33 percent or above 96 percent, including Miami, which was 97 percent), losing to Duke and Navy require some further examination.
In both games, there were key special teams mistakes: A 96-yard kick return touchdown by Duke’s backup returner (Shaun Wilson) that stopped Notre Dame’s early 14-0 momentum, and a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty that negated what would’ve been Navy’s only punt of the game in Jacksonville (even though that penalty should not have been called, that Devin Studstill was late getting off the field left too much to chance). In two games decided by a total of four points, those two special teams mistakes stood tall. And if Notre Dame wins both, we’re spending this week figuring out what bowl the Irish will play in.
Notre Dame’s special teams unit ranks 80th in S&P+, which stands as clearly the weak link of this team.
Against Navy, too, there was that ill-fated decision to kick a field goal down four midway through the fourth quarter instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-four try deep in Navy territory. Justin Yoon connected on the try, pulling the Irish within one, but they never got the ball back.
It’s hard to buy an argument that Notre Dame was unlucky in 2016 when last year it lost so many key players to injuries and still won 10 games. Only two Irish players suffered what turned out to be season-ending injuries this year: Cornerback Shaun Crawford (torn Achilles’, 10 games) and nose guard Daniel Cage (concussion, three games). This issue this year wasn’t depth, it was in the top-end players on this roster and the way they were coached.
More accurate would be pointing to Notre Dame’s inability to close out games. On a quarter-by-quarter basis, both of Notre Dame’s worst offensive (94th) and defensive (63rd) showings came in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame enters the final week of the regular season with the No. 1 first quarter offense in the country, and defensively ranks 28th in the second quarter and 29th in the third quarter.
A heavy reliance on the passing game was probably to Notre Dame’s detriment, too, given it ranked 50th in passing S&P+ and 33rd in rushing S&P+. But Notre Dame ran the ball only 55.7 percent of the time on standard downs (90th), often putting the brunt of offensive production on quarterback DeShone Kizer. While Kizer certainly needed to do better with his decision-making in the pocket, he was sacked on 9 percent of standard downs, the seventh-highest rate at the FBS level.
Taking a step back, it’s incredibly strange that a team with a quarterback who could be among the top three picks in the 2017 NFL Draft would have such a mediocre passing offense. But asking Kizer to do it all, either by necessity or choice, didn’t work for Notre Dame.
All this adds up to a season in which Notre Dame absolutely should’ve made a bowl game but managed its fifth-worst winning percentage since 1899. This team wasn’t good enough to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl, but it should’ve at least scraped together enough wins to trigger a month of bowl practice and one final game for its departing senior class. It did enough things right for that to be the case.
Instead, winter came earlier than it has in seven years, and Notre Dame will have an extra month to chew on one of the most disappointing seasons in program history.