Brian Kelly enters his eighth season at Notre Dame and is feeling real pressure over his job for the first time. Kelly has produced two major bowl appearances in seven years and been the most successful Notre Dame coach since Lou Holtz left in 1996. But that only elevates Kelly above a few other coaches who also got fired, and coming off a 4-8 disaster in 2016, the debate is over how many games he needs to win this season.
A good place to start is the Over/Under board in Las Vegas. The smart money has Notre Dame pegged at 7.5, so if you bet Notre Dame to go Over, they need eight wins. That sounds about right—it would mark a significant step forward and not coincidentally, enable some well-heeled, influential alumni to cash their bets. How realistic then, is the path to eight victories?
For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume those wins must come in the regular season, even though bowl games do count toward the Over/Under. The reality is that a 7-5 Notre Dame team might be playing a bowl under an interim head coach, a la 2004.
The Irish are going to be able to run the ball well. The left side of the offensive line, with Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, is as good as any guard-tackle tandem in the country and Josh Adams is a good running back. Quarterback is in transition after DeShone Kizer left early for the NFL, but Brandon Wimbush is well-regarded and getting good quarterback play is usually a Kelly strength.
That brings us to the defense, the reason for Notre Dame’s struggles last year and under new leadership in coordinator Mike Elko. Nyles Morgan is the only reliable returnee, at middle linebacker, so the Irish need to hope that either Elko is exceptional, that some talented freshman on the defensive front play well, or both.
If you break the schedule down, here’s how Notre Dame’s Road To Eight Wins might look…
Must Win (6): Temple (Sept 2), at Boston College (Sept 16), Miami-Ohio (Sept 30), N.C. State (October 28), Wake Forest (November 4), Navy (Nov 18)
Be Prepared To Lose (3): Georgia (Sept 9), USC (Oct 21), at Stanford (Nov 25)
Swing Games (Must Go 2-1): at Michigan State (Sept 23), at North Carolina (Oct 7), at Miami (Nov 11)
That’s not an easy row to hoe. The fact Navy is in the must-win category underscores the difficult road and needing to win two of three swing games on the road against teams with a superior recent track record is even tougher.
I think Brian Kelly is a good coach and it would be a mistake to let him go if Notre Dame shows progress. But he “only” makes $1.6 million per year (65th in the country) through 2021, and with the Charlie Weis contract finally off the books, the school can afford a buyout. If the standard is eight regular season wins, then Kelly’s chances don’t look good.