Mailbag: How Notre Dame fell apart this season under Brian Kelly

WP

As we reach the midpoint of the regular season this weekend – how did that happen so quickly? — a quick reminder that college football seasons rarely play out in completely linear fashion. Some teams get better, some get worse. Some that start 4-2 will finish 5-7, and some that start 2-4 will finish 7-5.

Having said that, things aren’t looking so bright for one particular 2-4 team.

Stewart: Notre Dame came into the season with a top 10 ranking, but the Irish are not a good team. Good teams are not 2-4. What went wrong, how do they fix it, and as we head into the colder part of the season, does Brian Kelly need the seat warmers in his comp car or is his seat warm enough without them?

— Tony, Portland, Oregon

What went wrong? In a word – everything. An inexperienced defense has not produced the necessary playmakers, and early returns suggest coordinator Brian VanGorder’s dismissal was not a magical elixir. The Irish have allowed 28 plays of 20 or more yards and six plays of 50-plus yards. Notre Dame’s run game, a presumed strength coming in, ranks 98th nationally (3.9 yards per carry). And while QB DeShone Kizer has been outstanding at times, the offense is converting just 33.3 percent of its third-down attempts, 111th nationally.

Hovering over all that is the fact Kelly has managed the season about as poorly as possible. His plan to split time between Kizer and Malik Zaire in the opener against Texas created undue controversy when it was abundantly clear Kizer was going to eventually be the guy. Firing the defensive coordinator midseason always comes off as panicky. Publicly criticizing players (like calling his center’s snapping “atrocious” last week) does not generally win over the team. And playing in a monsoon at NC State, the Irish passed more than they ran. What the heck?

But does that mean Kelly is on the hot seat? I don’t believe so.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that the new trend of certain schools now firing their coaches abruptly, like LSU did with Les Miles, has created a misleading perception that everybody is looking to fire everybody. Not every school is the same, and not every situation is the same. In Notre Dame’s case, Kelly went 39-13 over the four seasons prior to this one (2012-15). Before that, the Irish had not won that many games over a four-year stretch since 1990-93. How’s that for perspective?

So no, I don’t see AD Jack Swarbick pulling the plug after one bad season, even if the Irish miss a bowl. But he’d be on the hot seat going into next year.

 

Stewart: Why don't they play the LSU-Florida game on Dec. 3 and move the SEC title game to Friday Dec. 9? The championship game would be the only football game to watch that night. Also, any Heisman contenders could go to New York the next night.

— Brian A., Naples, Florida

The College Football Playoff is not going to push back its final rankings by a week — creating a ripple that delays the pairings for nearly every bowl game – just so two SEC teams that may well be 7-4 by then can make up a postponed game that they should have figured out a way to play last weekend. So the only way it gets played Dec. 3 is if both the Tigers and Gators are eliminated from winning their respective divisions, but that might not resolve itself until as late as the week before. At which point they’d be right back in the same quandary they are now where the division could be decided without that game being played.

The whole thing is ridiculous. While I would never make light of a catastrophic hurricane, I’ve been covering this sport long enough to see many, many schools deal with similar situations without it turning into a public soap opera. Both sides are going to have to make some compromises, which, in the Sun Belt reshuffling scenario now being discussed, would require Florida to give up its home game against Presbyterian and LSU to give up its pre-Alabama bye week. Both seem perfectly reasonable if the alternative is cancelling an important SEC contest.

An Apple Cup between two ranked teams (let alone serving as a Pac-12 Championship play-in game) is still a ways off. But still, who would have thought five years ago that the Washington schools would take turns manhandling Stanford and Oregon on consecutive weeks? Does this feel like a significant changing of the guard to you?

— Matt, Hillsdale, Michigan

On Halloween night in 2009, I covered what clearly felt like (and turned out to be) a Pac-12 changing-of-the-guard game when Oregon, in its first year under Chip Kelly, hammered Pete Carroll’s then seven-time conference champ USC 47-20. Washington’s 44-6 demolition of Stanford two weeks ago felt very much the same, and Washington State’s subsequent blowout of the Cardinal all but assured that someone that hasn’t won the conference since at least the early 2000s (or in Utah’s case, not at all) is going to win it this year.

But now let me qualify that answer. While it seems all but certain that Washington, barring major injury woes, will be go into the Apple Cup in contention for its division, Wazzu remains a wild-card. Mike Leach’s teams are often all over the map. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Cougars win their next six in a row, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they lose to 2-3 Oregon State and/or 2-4 Arizona.

And finally, unlike USC post-2009, I don’t think Stanford is going anywhere as long as David Shaw isn’t going anywhere (and he isn’t). I would not be surprised if the Cardinal improve over the second half of the year – some regression on offense was to be expected with a new quarterback and O-line turnover, though not as bad as the past two games. And even if Stanford finishes this year 7-5, I’d expect it to still be a regular contender going forward. But Chris Petersen’s Huskies will likely become Stanford’s primary Pac-12 North nemesis, a changing of the guard from Oregon the past seven seasons.

I’ve got the best question of the week for you. If Baylor or West Virginia finished undefeated, would they be left out of the playoff given how bad their schedules are? Or would it be too “controversial” for the committee to leave them out?

— Arin, Ohio

We’ll let the audience decide if this is the best question of the week.

I think it would take an extremely unusual situation for an undefeated power conference champ to finish outside of the top four (not including all five going undefeated, which has never happened.) In the case of this year’s Big 12, it’s true that whoever wins the conference is not going to have the opportunity to play and beat many Top 25 teams. There are any number of potential one-loss champs or non-champs out will have more high-end wins.

But nor will the Big 12 champ have played a Mountain West schedule. Take West Virginia. If the Mountaineers go 12-0 they will have done so against 10 Power 5 opponents and BYU. BYU isn’t a Top 25 team but it’s currently 3-3 against one of the nation’s toughest schedules to date. The Mountaineers will only play four truly bad teams all season in Missouri, Youngstown State, Kansas and Iowa State. By comparison, potential one-loss SEC champ Tennessee will play six (Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vandy).

End of day, undefeated West Virginia will have beaten one or two ranked foes and six or seven other decent teams without losing a game. I doubt four other teams’ resumes would be indisputably better.

Baylor, on the other hand, does give me pause, thanks to having played its usual early-season cakewalk of Northwestern State, SMU and Rice. The Bears’ resume will consist entirely of their nine Big 12 games, and the Big 12 isn’t very good. There’s also the elephant in room – the school’s sexual assault scandal. Theoretically that should never come up in the committee’s deliberations, but you don’t think it would be in the back of their minds? That if Baylor make the playoff, much of the coverage leading up to its semifinal game will be about mishandling of rape cases and assistant coaches who think the school is out to get them?

The good news for the committee is that even one loss by the Bears will likely preclude them from having to make a decision either way.

One of the reasons I love college football is watching the wide variety of offensive schemes. Washington's “multiple” offense reminds me of this, as the Huskies mix concepts of several different offensive philosophies and can run a pro-style on first down, spread on second, read-option on third and Power-I on fourth. It took a few (painful) years to implement, but it now seems unstoppable. Is this the future?  Will coaches realize that strictly running a pro-style or spread or Air Raid is too one-dimensional and eventually everyone will be “multiple”?  

— Lee, Seattle

More teams than you may realize already do that. Alabama does, for one. It didn’t used to, but over the past three seasons, OC Lane Kiffin has been incorporating more hurry-up and spread into Nick Saban’s pro-style system. Now with dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts, the Tide often look more like 2014 Oregon than 2014 Alabama. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino is doing much the same thing with Lamar Jackson. Conversely, Ohio State is a spread team at heart that will run it down your throat if needed. At this point it’s really just the Air Raid and Baylor-style teams (i.e. most of the Big 12) that rarely veer from one philosophy.

Having said all that, Chris Petersen was years ahead of most of his peers in this department. Way back in 2005 I worked on a feature for SI.com called “The Offensive Revolution” that profiled then-rising innovators Urban Meyer, Petrino, Mike Leach and Petersen, then still Dan Hawkins’ Boise State offensive coordinator. Even then he was blending multiple styles, using pre-snap motion and deploying endless formations and personnel groupings. Back then, of course, he was trying to compensate for a massive talent disparity; now he’s got better players to where he doesn’t have to be so unconventional, but at this point he is who he is.

The fan site UW Dawg Pound put it best last year when author Chris Landon wrote, “It seems the lack of a system is exactly the kind of system that Petersen likes to run.” Mind you, though, he wrote that while lamenting the Huskies’ offensive struggles at the time.

Stewart: I look forward to the Mailbag every week, as I find you the most knowledgeable college football writer in the country. Now, not to pile on, but Rutgers looks uncompetitive, which speaks to a larger question. Every major conference has a school or two like that — the Big 12 has Iowa State, the SEC has Vandy and so on. In this era of potential super conferences, what's the likelihood that conferences could kick members out to add stronger programs?

— Chris H, Parkland, Florida

This reminds me: On a recent Audible episode, Bruce said he groans at some of the compliments readers like Chris include in their emails. He thinks I should edit them out. Does Bruce have a valid point, or is he just jealous that Chris doesn’t consider him the “most knowledgeable college football writer in the country?”

I’ve gotten quite a few “why doesn’t the Big Ten kick out Rutgers?” questions since Michigan’s 78-0 pasting last weekend. My counter to that would be, Jim Delany knew exactly what he was getting when he invited the school. And he’s not having one iota of buyer’s remorse. Rutgers and Maryland served their intended purpose when the Big Ten Network gained eight million new subscribers and reaped an additional $17.8 million a year in subscriber fees from one Northeast cable company alone (Cablevision), according to numbers from AdAge. He gets to play the conference basketball tournament in D.C. this year and Madison Square Garden next year. Rutgers dropping consecutive football games 58-0 and 78-0 is just the price of doing business.

To answer your question, no, I don’t believe the conferences in their current form would seriously consider trading in members unless a school becomes a complete trainwreck academically, athletically and financially. The Big East memorably booted Temple in 2004 for those reasons. Of the schools you mentioned, fan support for Rutgers and Iowa State remains strong, and Vandy is the SEC’s equivalent of the smart kid that does the cool kids’ homework for them.

Now, as I wrote this summer, I could see a day when the current conference model gets blown up completely in favor of a NFL-like confederation of only the sport’s premier programs. But as it’s still the longstanding “collegial” conference model, it’d take something pretty severe to merit expulsion.

Auburn's two losses this season were close battles to Clemson and Texas A&M. Is it possible the Tigers are a bit better than expected this year, or am I just an optimistic alum?

— Jeff H., Charlotte, North Carolina

While I wouldn’t characterize that A&M loss as “close” – the Aggies never led by fewer than two scores in the fourth quarter – you might be on to something. Auburn, now 4-2, has inspired much more confidence since Gus Malzahn finally settled on Sean White as his full-time quarterback. He’s quietly completed 77 percent of his passes in wins over LSU, Louisiana Monroe and Mississippi State. Similarly, sophomore Kamryn Pettway has emerged as the go-to running back Malzahn has been missing seemingly since Tre Mason left town three years ago. He carried 39 times for 169 yards and three touchdowns against the Bulldogs.

Defensively, though, Auburn hasn’t faced an offense with a pulse since that Sept. 17 A&M game, and the Aggies had a lot of success running the ball in a 29-16 win. The Tigers have a bye this week, but I’ll be interested to see how their defense fares against Arkansas in their next game. I think we can agree that Auburn is not going to beat out Alabama or Texas A&M for the SEC West title, but there’s nothing to say the Tigers couldn’t beat out Ole Miss/Arkansas/LSU for third. It’d be a nice improvement from last year’s seventh-place finish and certainly better than most were predicting heading into that Sept. 24 LSU game.

Stewart, I am a big college football fan, but I am seeing a big problem develop. Every meaningful game is taking almost four hours to play. The A&M-Tennessee game took nearly four-and-a-half hours in regulation, nearly five hours in total. This is likely due to a combination of factors (college stoppage rules, hurry-up offenses leading to more clock-stopping downs, television), but having to block out 4-plus hours for a single game is getting to be absurd. Do you see this trend continuing, or is this a short-term blip due to the factors mentioned?  

— Anthony, Dallas

The A&M-Tennessee game — which officially kicked off at 2:39 p.m. and ended at 7:22 p.m. — was the longest game I’ve ever watched that wasn’t a full-on shootout. At one point I remember noticing we were approaching three-and-a-half hours, and there were still 10-plus minutes left in the fourth quarter and the score was only 28-14. The overtimes actually went pretty quick. The problem was regulation, which included a whole lot of injury timeouts and replays on top of the teams running a combined 171 plays.

It’s definitely a problem. The Wall Street Journal reported early in the season that average length of college games has increased by about 15 minutes since 2008. The trend definitely needs to change. I’m just not sure how.

For one thing, broadcast networks ABC, CBS and FOX still show most of the biggest games, and broadcast nets show more commercials than cable. (NBC’s Notre Dame games are often marathons as well.) They’re not going to suddenly start selling fewer ads. Not when it’s costing them billions to buy the rights in the first place.

Secondly, you can’t dictate teams’ style of play. They’re all going to hurry-up, which manages to have the opposite effect you would think. Rather than speeding up the game, those offenses slow it down. More plays = more first downs = more touchdowns = more stoppages and changes of possession.

The NCAA rules committee actually tried to address this in 2008, instituting the running 40-second clock between plays and restarting the clock on an official’s signal after a player goes out of bounds. Either those changes didn’t work, or without them games would actually be five hours at this point. One obvious tweak would be to not stop the clock after first downs, but since football still relies on a 1950s-style chain gang in 2016, those guys need time to reset themselves.

Anybody got any good ideas? … Think about it while we go to this commercial break.