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Is Brian Kelly’s Best Notre Dame Team Good Enough?

The Fighting Irish are loaded on both sides of the ball; now, all they’ve got to do is win

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Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly begins his sixth season as Irish coach.

Joe Raymond/AP

This is Brian Kelly’s sixth season as the head coach at Notre Dame, which doesn’t seem like much given where things started, given that he’d inherited a program that had been decimated by the overarching arrogance and ineptitude of his predecessor, Charlie Weis. And yet this already makes Kelly the longest-tenured Notre Dame head coach since Lou Holtz; if he chooses to stay (and/or is permitted to stay) until his current freshman class are seniors, Kelly will become the fourth longest-tenured coach in Notre Dame history.

No one other than Knute Rockne himself (13 seasons) has made it more than 11 years at Notre Dame. Frank Leahy coached 11, Ara Parseghian coached 11 and Holtz coached 11. Every one of those coaches won a national championship. So did Dan Devine, who coached six years in the late 1970s; so (technically) did Elmer Layden, who made it seven seasons in the late 1930s. Which means that Brian Kelly is now the longest-lasting Notre Dame coach who has yet to win a national championship.

“I don’t know if you ever get comfortable in this seat at Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Tuesday, asked at the school’s football media day about his feelings on making it to a sixth season. “Comfortable isn’t a word I would use.”

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is indeed a column about Notre Dame. It is being written in the preseason, before the Irish played a game, but even if it wasn’t, there is an inherent dilemma in the very notion of writing about Notre Dame: Either you believe that the Irish will overachieve, in which case you are in inevitably going to be accused of clinging to some outdated logic about the hierarchy of college football and did you watch the BCS National Championship game in 2013? Or you believe that the Irish will underachieve, in which case you are a Big Ten/SEC naysayer and have you seen the way Kelly has already elevated the talent level at Notre Dame above that of his recent predecessors?

The problem, right now, is that both of these things are true. The problem is that it could go either way, which is how it’s been for much of Kelly’s tenure. Notre Dame has yet to prove itself on a national level since that devastating loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game; but Notre Dame is clearly better than its ever been under Kelly, a deeper, stronger, faster team, with a potential star at quarterback in Malik Zaire. The fact that the Irish lost their other quarterback, Everett Golson, to Florida State and yet it didn’t temper preseason expectations either says something about our ability to consistently overestimate Notre Dame’s place in the modern college football universe, or it says something about how good Notre Dame might finally be.

The Irish return a slew of starters on both sides of the ball, including 10 on defense (though the loss of DT Jarron Jones hurts), and they should be able to run the ball. But it’s difficult to know how good that will make them; it’s difficult to know if Kelly can break the 8-5/9-4 ceiling even with a team like this one, given that the Irish play at Clemson and Stanford, given that they open against what should be an improved Texas team and host a tricky Georgia Tech squad in the third week of the season, and given that they also have to play a USC team that’s been picked to win the Pac-12.

Kelly said on Tuesday that this year’s Irish are faster and deeper and more athletic than the 2012 team that was routed by Bama, but it’s hard to know what that means. There’s no good way to know what Notre Dame will do this season until the season actually begins. There’s no good way to measure whether Kelly will turn into a transcendent Irish coach until we see what he does with what should be the best team he’s ever coached.

There’s never been a complete sense of comfort in the Kelly era, but that’s because there’s never been much comfort in being the coach at Notre Dame. It’s a vicious circle in itself: The history is what makes Notre Dame one of the great jobs in college football, and the history is what makes it so perpetually unsettling.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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