Notre Dame

Statistically speaking, was Notre Dame better than its 4-8 record suggests?

Statistically speaking, was Notre Dame better than its 4-8 record suggests?

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: efficiencyexplosivenessfield 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. 

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.