What a difference one game can make. Had Notre Dame held on for a win (they led 14-0 in the second half but lost 18-14) over Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, the Irish would have begun its off-season with the momentum of an improved win total from head coach Brian Kelly's first year and the pride of having won nine of their last 11 games.
Instead, they travel north licking the wounds of yet another disappointing season in which they failed to meet expectations. At worst, they have provided the leverage for Kelly to start next season on the hot seat, although it should be mentioned that in the two seasons before Kelly arrived at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish went 7-6 and 6-6.
Thursday's loss to the Seminoles reminded me a lot of Notre Dame's second game of the season at Michigan. The Irish led most of the way and seemed to be in control. But then they went into a conservative "hang on" mode, playing to avoid big mistakes. Naturally, they made a bunch of mistakes and lost the game.
Two straight 8-5 seasons may have been good enough at any of Kelly's previous stops, but not at Notre Dame. Two former Notre Dame coaches, Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham, got five and three years, respectively, to prove themselves, and each of them earned BCS invitations during their tenures, something Kelly has yet to do. Up at Michigan, Rich Rodriguez, only got three seasons for the Wolverines.
Where is Notre Dame, though, heading into next season?
There has certainly been some improvement, particularly on the defensive front seven and in the offensive run game. The Irish are riddled with problems, though, that must be fixed if Notre Dame is to return to prominence any time soon.
1. The most obvious area of concern is at quarterback. The Irish played three quarterbacks this season, and they combined for 23 turnovers between the three of them. The great unanswered question of the season is whether or not Kelly gave up on Dayne Crist too soon. (Crist will have his chance to answer that question next season, when he reunites with Weis at Kansas.) Tommy Rees got the majority of snaps, and his 65% completion percentage, 20 touchdown passes, and 12 wins as a starter might appear good enough to maintain the starting role into next season, but his numbers are inflated by impressive numbers against lowly defenses such as Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland. Truthfully, his weak arm, questionable decision-making, and lack of mobility trap him under a pretty low ceiling. Andrew Hendrix possesses the better legs and arm, but even he threw a key interception against Florida State. Fans hope youngster Everret Golsen (who redshirted this season) may offer the answer to Notre Dame's quarterbacking quandary.
2. With record-breaking senior wide receiver Michael Floyd departing for the NFL, the Irish have a tall task in finding playmakers at receiver. Floyd accounted for 100 catches in 2011, good for 9 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards receiving. Returning receivers Roby Toma, Theo Riddick (who may play running back), and T.J. Jones have yet to show the ability to demand a defense's attention.
3. Notre Dame's defensive secondary came in with high promise in 2011, but proved quite vulnerable against Michigan, USC, Stanford, and late in the game against Florida State. Three of the four (safety Harrison Smith, cornerback Gary Gray, and cornerback Robert Blanton) have exhausted their eligibility. Who will fill their shoes and how they perform will be one of the big questions for Notre Dame going into 2012.
4. Before Floyd's 41-yard punt return against Florida State, Notre Dame had the worst punt return game in the nation. Besides George Atkinson's kickoff returning (two returns for a touchdown), the punt return game was only the weakest of a generally weak special teams attack. Kicker David Ruffer's performance declined markedly from the year before. Punter Ben Turk improved, but still only averaged 40 yards a punt. The special teams have to be better.
For all the areas of concern, next season's schedule certainly does not provide any relief. In addition to Notre Dame's typical dosage of Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, USC, and Pittsburgh, the Irish will also play Miami, BYU, and Oklahoma.