Mailbag: One crucial reason Notre Dame shouldn’t run off Brian Kelly

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I wrote most of this Mailbag on Tuesday, so if you’re reading this, good news. We made it past Election Day without society crumbling.

Notre Dame’s football program, on the other hand …

Stewart, As a Notre Dame alum/emotionally-over-invested fan, I am surprised you and more of the credible national sports media have not focused your writing on the pitiful seven-year performance of Brian Kelly and the need to remove him as coach. Keeping this to strictly Kelly’s on-field shortcomings:

ZERO major bowl wins – and blowout losses in two appearances; a minimum of four losses in five out of seven seasons; and “accomplishing” all this during a period when Stanford has proven that an academics-first school can compete among the elite in college football.

Signed,

Mr. E. (Apoplectic Notre Dame alum in the Chicago ‘burbs)

No one could dispute that Kelly has done a terrible job this season, not just because he’s 3-6, but because several of those losses (including last week’s to Navy) swung in part on his own strategic blunders. However, I could throw out a few selective nuggets of my own that would frame his larger tenure much differently.

* Two double-digit win seasons, becoming the first Notre Dame coach since Lou Holtz in the early ‘90s to achieve that.

* A .667 winning percentage (.705 prior to this season). No coach since Holtz managed to reach .600.

* “Accomplishing” all this during a period when Notre Dame played one of the nation’s 25 toughest schedules four times, per Sagarin.

Notre Dame fans have every right to be frustrated by this season’s debacle, especially since it absolutely cannot be blamed on the schedule. None of its six losses have come to currently ranked teams. With Virginia Tech and USC still to come, a final record of 4-8 may be the best-case scenario. That’s awful.

But it’s revisionist history to now paint his entire tenure as a failure.

So my question to Mr. E and any other Irish fan ready to put Kelly out to pasture is this: Who are you going to hire that’s an obvious upgrade? Ara Parseghian isn’t walking through that door. Neither is Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly, Bob Stoops, David Shaw or any number of other fantasy names. There’s plenty of good coaches out there, but none who will wave a magic wand and return Notre Dame to the glory days of old.

Prior to this season, Kelly had come closer than most could.

Serious question: What is the difference between Texas A&M and the Vols to this point? Each got pummeled by ‘Bama. Each has a bad loss on the road (Mississippi State and South Carolina, respectively). A&M beat the Vols in double OT at home and you could argue the Vols were the better team (seven turnovers). Why all of the love for A&M in the rankings and the Vols can't sniff #25? Or, why the hell is A&M ranked at all, much less in the top 10?

— Tyler Brown, somewhere

I don’t have much sympathy for your Vols. They’re a three-loss team that’s clearly trending in the wrong direction. But I share your bewilderment over the committee’s continued adulation for No. 8 Texas A&M. It’s almost as if Kevin Sumlin himself holds a vote.

That being said, analytics love A&M. Both before and after last Tuesday’s show, A&M fans touted ESPN’s Strength of Record metric, which essentially decreed it harder to go 7-1 against the Aggies’ schedule than 8-0 against Washington’s. A week later, even after that loss to 4-5 Mississippi State, A&M’s Strength of Record is … No. 8. That can’t be a coincidence. Nor the fact Washington is No. 4, Ohio State No. 5.

To be clear, the committee does NOT use ESPN’s or any other media site’s metrics, but its own provider, SportSource Analytics, provides similar numbers. And if committee chairman Kirby Hocutt had come on Tuesday night and cited some such statistic, I’d say – fair enough. I don’t agree that A&M is the eighth-best team in the country, but at least that’s a reasonable justification.

But to say the Aggies had to be No. 8 to respect their head-to-head win over No. 9 Auburn – c’mon. That game was played almost two months ago. They are not the same teams. As of this week, A&M no longer has its quarterback from that game. And this is not like TCU-Baylor in 2014, where nearly every other part of their resumes was identical.

Head-to-head should be a tiebreaker when the teams are close enough to be tied. A&M’s profile at this point is not particularly close to Auburn’s. But it’s still better than Tennessee’s. Sorry.

Hello Stewart. I read about the Big Ten starting Friday night games next year. Many of those opposed to this move cite protecting high school football as an important reason not to play them. I also read a few articles about NFL ratings being down this season. They have Thursday night games now and play on a few Saturdays after the end of the college regular season. What stops the NFL from having Saturday games throughout the season?  

— Caleb Wilkes, Glen Cove, New  York

First of all, I’ve been having some fun on Twitter with the Big Ten fan alarmists who seem to think six Friday night games are going to be the death of both the conference and high school football in the Midwest. While I get that it’s non-traditional and perhaps disruptive for fans attending the games, other leagues have been doing it for 15 years with no reports of disastrous consequences. And it’s a great exposure opportunity for lower-profile programs. As I tweeted Tuesday:

Believe it or not, college football’s Saturday exclusivity is written into law. In 1961 Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which allowed the NFL and other pro leagues to pool their teams’ broadcast rights without violating antirust law. It specifically states that NFL games cannot be aired locally on a Friday night or Saturday when local high schools and colleges are playing. So the 49ers could play on a Saturday, but if Stanford or Cal had a game that day, no one in the Bay Area could watch it. It’s an effective deterrent.

The law does not apply to college broadcasts, so while the NFL cannot play games on a high school Friday night, the Big Ten can. High school associations obviously aren’t pleased, but they’ll likely find the impact to be minimal.

In February, you beat into our heads the importance of recruiting rankings. So you shouldn't be “baffled” by TCU, Oregon and Michigan State regressing to the mean. In the short term, second-tier programs can strike gold at QB, have a couple three-stars turn into early draft picks and get lucky in close games, but it's not sustainable.

— Matt, Las Vegas

I agree to some extent. Nearly every program eventually regresses to their historical mean, whether it’s Alabama burying 15 years of irrelevance upon Nick Saban’s arrival or Mississippi State returning to a .500-ish team after two great seasons with Dak Prescott. Notre Dame, as discussed above, is either an exception at this point or it managed to play well above its mean for seven decades.

But of the schools you mentioned, Oregon and Michigan State are far below their mean this year. Neither are 4-8 programs. At worst they’re 8-4 programs. And both had been well above that for so long that you can hardly chalk up that success either to luck or one great quarterback. But there’s also no denying that they overachieved relative to their recruiting rankings.

Oregon fans will eventually realize the Chip Kelly era is going to be extremely difficult to replicate with Mark Helfrich or anyone else. Mark Dantonio’s nightmare season will likely prove an aberration, but it’s going to be harder for him going forward to win Big Ten titles with Ohio State, Michigan and perhaps soon Penn State all at full strength.

TCU is an interesting one, because at this point Gary Patterson has defied recruiting rankings for going on two decades. At this point it’s fair to conclude he reset the mean for that program, much like Bill Snyder did at Kansas State. Whether TCU finishes 8-4, 7-5 or 6-6 this year, I’d expect the Frogs to be right back in 10-win territory soon enough.

What is your favorite rivalry trophy? Also, if you could make one up like the Minnesota Gopher and @FauxPelini did just a couple of years ago in creating the Nebraska-Minnesota Broken Chair Trophy, which would it be and why? 

— Collin Lacher, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

First of all, how amazing is it that the Broken Chair went from Twitter exchange to actual thing exchanged between schools last year? FauxPelini may be the most revered figure in college football right now outside of Verne Lundquist.

My favorite trophy also involves the Gophers – the Floyd of Rosedale. Everyone else can go play for their Waterford crystals; Iowa and Minnesota play for a bronzed pig, and nothing can top that. Though the Broken Chair comes close.

As for the second part, it’s so hard to come up with a new trophy that doesn’t seem completely contrived. You don’t want something so lame that the winning team leaves it behind. But for such a highly-watched game every year, LSU-Alabama doesn’t have a trophy. Given how the most recent edition as well as several others played out, the most fitting form of swag might be a Brick Wall.

Is Rich Rodriguez in trouble at Arizona? I don't know the specifics of his contract but he's gone from Fiesta Bowl to New Mexico Bowl to potential 3-9 season. That kind of trend is difficult to ignore. And his flirtation with South Carolina last year would seem to indicate he wanted out ahead of what he knew would be a tough year.

— Chris, Charleston, West Virginia

He should be all right, but man what an implosion. You can’t go losing conference games 69-7.

AD Greg Byrne is one of the last guys in the business to have a quick trigger finger. He knows well the limitations you’re up against in basketball-centric Tucson. He does not take for granted Rodriguez reaching four straight bowls, winning 10 games in 2014 and reaching that year’s Pac-12 championship game. All of that, plus his penchant for viral marketing campaigns, entitle him to at least one mulligan.

What’s interesting is that the Wildcats’ on-field implosion comes at a time when the program is enjoying a notable spike in recruiting. Rodriguez shook up his staff over the offseason with the specific intent of bringing in better recruiters and it’s paid off with a class currently ranked in the Top 20 nationally. Arizona finished in the 40s the two years before that. But now, fans must wonder whether he sacrificed the quality of his staff’s on-field coaching in doing that.

Barring something unforeseen, he’ll be back in 2017. But if he doesn’t turn things around quickly, then it may be someone else who winds up benefitting from those recruits.

Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is one of the best linebackers in the country, but if it wasn’t for the fourth down stop he made against Georgia and the insane field goal block last week against Auburn that both made all the highlight shows, the general public would never have heard of him. Who else is out there that we should know about?

— Jeff Segal, Atlanta

Cunningham has certainly made a name for himself and should be a prime Butkus Award candidate with his 94 tackles, 13.5 TFLs and three fumbles forced or recovered. The only reason he hasn’t gotten more attention obviously is that he plays for Vandy.

Some other stud defenders getting similarly overlooked include Colorado LB Kenneth Olugbode and CB Chidobe Awuzie, both key figures in the Buffs’ defensive resurgence; UCLA DE Tak McKinley, Illinois DE Carroll Phillips; and Kansas DE Dorance Armstrong Jr., all of them stud pass-rushers stuck on bad teams. Louisville CB Jaire Alexander has also been completely overshadowed by a certain other Cardinal, but Pro Football Focus has him as the nation’s top-graded cornerback.

Offensively, I’m guessing not many fans outside of the Big Ten realize how dominant Northwestern WR Austin Carr has become; his 70 catches for 1,010 yards far outpace any other receiver in the conference. Western Michigan’s Corey Davis (61 for 1,011) is a projected first-rounder. Wyoming RB Brian Hill (1,298 yards) is the nation’s third-leading rusher but overshadowed in his own conference by San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey and Boise’s Jeremy McNichols. And you’ve got to love Kentucky RB Boom Williams, who’s averaging 6.8 yards per carry in SEC play.

Hi Stewart, I heard on a different podcast that Colorado has the eighth-ranked defense by S& P+, but their offense is only 32nd. I remember last summer that Davis Webb was debating whether to transfer to Cal or Colorado. Webb has led an elite offense (10th in S&P+) at Cal. Had he showed up in Boulder instead would this already successful Colorado team be a legitimate playoff contender?

— Bobby in West Lafayette

Webb, a Texas Tech grad transfer, had been committed to Colorado for months before opting for Cal. He’s certainly been productive for the Bears, ranking third nationally in passing yards (352.9 per game). But is he necessarily performing better than Colorado’s Steven Montez and Sefo Liufau? They rank 30th and 36th respectively in pass efficiency; Webb is 56th. And both are averaging 8.0 yards per attempt to Webb’s 6.9.

Granted, it’s not an entirely fair comparison in large part due to their respective circumstances. Colorado plays largely low-scoring games. Its stout defense puts its offense in positions where the quarterbacks can afford to play conservatively. Webb is not only in a gun-slinging offense to begin with, but he’s been in quite a few games where the Bears get behind big and he has to start chucking.

QB had not necessarily been a weakness for the Buffs up until last week’s turnover-fest against UCLA, but Webb has more upside than Liufau (who’s reclaimed the starting job) and may have impacted how Mike MacIntyre uses his playbook. He probably wouldn’t have made the difference in a 17-point loss at Michigan, but could he have helped the Buffs reach the end zone once more in a 21-17 loss at USC? Possibly. In which case they’d be 7-1 and very much in the discussion.

Finally, I got a lot of responses this week to the question from a couple of weeks ago about teams that have faced a Murderer’s Row of opposing QBs in one season. I narrowed it down to these few.

Texas Tech 2003: Eli Manning, Ole Miss; Phillip Rivers, NC State; Vince Young, Texas; Jason White, Oklahoma; Brad Smith, Missouri; Joel Klatt, Colorado.

— Ted, Lubbock, Texas

This is the first and last time anyone will include Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt on the same list as a Heisman winner, Heisman runner-up and Super Bowl MVP.

Mr. Mandel,

In regards to a QB Murderer's Row, how about 1982 Notre Dame in just 11 games?

Jim Kelly (Miami): 1st round draft pick in 1983 and Hall of Famer
Dan Marino (Pitt): 1st round draft pick in 1983 and Hall of Famer
Todd Blackledge (PSU): 1st round draft pick in 1983

— Brian Ritchie, somewhere
Three first-rounders in the same year? Goodness.

Keep in mind in the early 1980s, the Miami Hurricanes defense faced Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar and Jim Kelly in practice. 

— Crawford Clay, somewhere

The world’s scariest scout team.

Hi Stewart, to continue with your QB Murderer's Row Challenge, Arizona in 2004 faced Utah’s Alex Smith, Cal’s Aaron Rodgers, USC’s Matt Leinart, Oregon’s Kellen Clemens and Oregon State’s Derek Anderson.

— McKenzie, Toronto, Ontario

That’s a whole bunch of future NFL starters. And Fox Sports’ Matt Leinart.