Brian Kelly On Hot Seat, Must Adapt

Brian Kelly on hot seat

Is Brian Kelly on the hot seat? Not many coaches are to be questioned after two undefeated regular seasons in three years, but having coached Notre Dame since 2009, and failures to keep the Irish competitive in their biggest games  define his tenure, it must be asked. After another season of big-game failures, the Irish’s late season shortcomings have become an all-too-familiar sequence for the Notre Dame fanbase, with a series of dates in December and January unlocking a vault of painful memories. 

Brian Kelly On Hot Seat After More Big Game Struggles

2013 BCS National Championship

January 7, 2013: Notre Dame was brutalized in every way by Alabama in the BCS National Championship. The Irish gave up 265 rushing yards to Alabama’s backfield and four touchdowns to A.J. McCarron. They trailed 35-0 and lost 42-14. Notre Dame put out just 37 rushing yards on 19 attempts. From there, Notre Dame began the process of rebuilding themselves to better contend with the nation’s elite. 

2018 Cotton Bowl

December 30, 2018: Notre Dame was overwhelmed by Clemson, 30-3. Notre Dame looked better defensively but was victimized by three touchdown plays of 42 yards or more. On offense, Notre Dame couldn’t do a single thing, mustering just a single possession of more than 34 yards. 

2020 ACC Championship

December 19, 2020: Notre Dame entered the ACC Championship with utmost confidence, having beaten Clemson earlier in the season. A premier opponent dominated the Irish once more, however, with the Irish dropping a 34-10 decision. A garbage time touchdown represented most of Notre Dame’s offense. Clemson again was explosive, with all four touchdowns coming on big gainers, 33 yards or more. The Irish complete 70% of their passes, but their inability to create downfield pressure on Clemson’s defense dooms them. 

2021 Rose Bowl

January 1, 2021: Just two weeks after their ACC Championship beatdown, the Irish returned to the CFP to face No. 1 Alabama. Buoyed by a grind-it-out offense that kept possession of the ball, Notre Dame stayed with the Tide for a while and ultimately held Alabama to 31 points, their lowest in a game since losing the 2019 National Championship. However, although they generated 119 yards on the ground and won the time of possession battle, Notre Dame notched just two touchdowns and the Tide pulled away by the end of the third quarter. It was a more competitive game, but ultimately a 31-14 defeat. 

Mirroring The Tide?

Four games on the biggest of stages, and four brutal losses. None were closer than 17 points and in all by an average of 24. So what separates the Irish from Alabama, Clemson, and other college football giants? And how will the Irish eventually break their 33-year (and counting) championship drought? Brian Kelly cannot escape the hot seat without concrete improvements.

Kelly has adapted before. He spent much of the past decade mirroring his squad after the 2013 Alabama team that throttled his Irish. By 2020, by and large, Kelly had accomplished that feat – he had a dynamic two-back backfield and a mobile quarterback who was a game-manager at worst and flashed elite ability at times. His offensive line was one of the best in the country, and assisted by his bruising tight ends and elite defense. Kelly’s Irish played a physical style of football that was good enough to dominate the majority of their opponents. But while he worked to achieve his vision, the college football world moved on.

What’s Missing For The Irish?

Strong defenses and running games were still important, but in the modern era of college football, the name of the game is high flying offenses that can drop 40 points with regularity, and that is what the Irish lack. Giving up 31 points to Alabama wasn’t the Irish’s death knell in the 2021 Rose Bowl – it was their measly two touchdowns that kept them from contending into the fourth quarter. In the ACC Championship, Clemson notched just one more point than they did in their regular season loss to Notre Dame, but the Irish offense disappeared. In ‘18, Notre Dame held a lethal Clemson offense that scored 44 points in the national title game to just 30 points, but mustered a single field goal of their own. Defense may get you to the show, but it is offense that brings home the hardware. 

Notre Dame trending In The Wrong Direction

Irish fans are quickly tiring of Brian Kelly, as over a decade into his tenure, legitimate questions about Notre Dame’s ceiling under their current head coach have arisen. Are Kelly’s Irish destined to be borderline elite, dominating large portions of their schedule but a solid step behind the title contenders? In order to improve on that status, Notre Dame must again make adjustments off of the teams that have so thoroughly beaten them in recent years. But this time, Kelly won’t have an eight-year leash to make it happen. 

A national-title-contending offense nowadays needs electric quarterbacks and playmakers. Notre Dame seems to be trending the wrong way in that discussion. They noticeably lost five-star wide receiver Jordan Johnson to the transfer portal this past spring, after the freshman barely saw the field in his first season in South Bend. And Notre Dame’s 2nd-ranked 2022 recruiting class has yet to lock down a single wide receiver commitment.

Development, Not Recruiting, Has Been The Issue

Even if they do land a couple of weapons, are the Irish willing to play their young receivers? The transfer portal claimed Johnson, Jay Brunelle, and it represents a formidable foe to Kelly’s stubborn approach. Or how about at quarterback? The Irish faithful are quick to hail incoming Tyler Buchner (the 6th-ranked QB in the 2021 class) as the answer, forgetting that  Notre Dame has had a handful of top QB prospects come to South Bend. Brandon Wimbush, Phil Jurkovec, and Malik Zaire were all top-5 prospects at the position. But none of them ended their career with the Irish. So recruiting hasn’t really been the issue. Rather, Kelly has continually failed to develop his prized recruits into program-altering players. 

With pronounced struggles to develop dynamic playmakers at key positions, Kelly is firmly on the hot seat. 

The blowout losses have eliminated any ‘moral victory’ claim at this point. The Irish need to break through. Whacking along with an outdated offense will not get the Irish any closer. Will losses under the bright lights of playoff pressure continue to define Kelly’s career? Because if so, it’s time for a change on the Irish sideline, before the Notre Dame fanbase adds more dates to their catalog of painful losses.

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