I’ll admit I have something of a fixation with Brian Kelly. This goes beyond a generalized interest in Notre Dame football. After all, I’ve been a fan for quite some time. I was never fixated on Bob Davie or Ty Willingham…unless loathing is a form of fixation. My fascination with Charlie Weis ended after about two and a half seasons. Yet, here we are double the amount of time I was interested in Weis in the Kelly-era, and I’m still intrigued.
What I think I know is that Brian Kelly is a very good college football coach. People who think Kelly should be on the hot seat should be careful what they wish for. Finding a head coach better than him is no easy task. Just look at the past two decades of Notre Dame football for further evidence on that front.
Brian Kelly is also still a bit of a mystery to me. In my first piece for Her Loyal Sons back in January, I wrote some words about what the Brian Kelly offense is. While there’s a considerable amount more to discuss just on that topic (and we hope to do so as this offseason progresses), I turned my focus to another piece of the Brian Kelly puzzle. The question I wanted to put some thought to was simple: What types of teams does Brian Kelly struggle against? I wanted to get a touch deeper than just “good ones.” So, I’ve begun to lay the framework for an exploration of Brian Kelly’s first five seasons while looking through a broader lense. After all, if the offseason isn’t about fixating on things, what is it good for? If you said mending relationships and learning the names of your children, you’re wrong. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to look at the game results under Brian Kelly on a basic level and see what questions we all may have that warrants further attention. For this week, I took the most basic of basic statistics: scoring offense and scoring defense. One nice thing about engaging in this inquiry in March is that I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight not only for Notre Dame but also for each of its opponents over Brian Kelly’s first five seasons.
No statistic is perfect. No method of considering statistics is perfect. Looking at things as basic as scoring offense and defense is obviously a flawed exercise. First and foremost, we’re really just a baby step away from saying that “the team that scores more points will win the game.” Part of the value of considering past results is to see what truths may be found that can be applied moving forward. It would take zero analysis and time to reach the conclusion scoring more points is good. Allowing fewer points is good. Put those two things together and you’ve got a decent recipe for success. Moreover, scoring is the goal of the game. It doesn’t tell you how you get there. In other words, it’s not a valuable answer when asked the question “how do you score more points” to respond with “by scoring more.” The answer lies in component statistics such as drive efficiency and yards per play. However, for week one of this inquiry, let’s keep it simple and go from there, shall we?
To begin to answer the questions about what teams Brian Kelly does well against (besides “bad” teams) or struggle against (besides “good” teams), I compared Notre Dame’s end of season rank for both scoring offense and defense to each of its opponents since 2010. Why did I choose to compare ranks instead of absolute values? Because rank provides a quick and dirty method of comparing the relative strength within a season of a team’s offense or defense. Every season adds its own context. The absolute numbers aren’t really all that telling. For example, if I told you Notre Dame scored 32.8 points per game I’ve told you virtually nothing. It just so happens that ND scored 32.8 points per game both last season and in its last national championship season, 1988. In 2014, 32.8 points per game was ranked 40th in FBS among offenses. In 1988, 32.8 was good for 13th. A year later, in 1989, Nore Dame scored 32.8 ppg again which was good for 11th in the nation. Comparing ranks within a season short circuits the normalizing process. But, enough of that, let’s start discussing:
Just as a reminder, in Brian Kelly’s 5 seasons with the team, his overall record is 45-20 which comes out to a .692 win percentage. What we’re looking for are trends or patterns in performance…
Despite coming to Notre Dame with a reputation as an offensive wizard, Brian Kelly’s offenses have not been all that great. His national end of season ranks in points per game have been: 68, 49, 80, 74, 40. Only twice in five seasons has a Kelly offense finished in the top 50 scoring offenses in the nation. There’s no question that the failure to elevate the scoring to a premier level on a year over year (or heck even one dang time) basis is the number one frustration fans have with Kelly.
As a result, fewer than half of Brian Kelly’s games at Notre Dame have involved his team matching up with a team that scored fewer points per game. 26 to be exact. As you might imagine, most of these games have involved truly terrible offenses. 2014 Navy was the only time in Brian Kelly’s tenure where his offense outranked another offense in a battle of Top 50 squads.
Bottom Line: In those 26 contests where Notre Dame was the better scoring offense, the team went 23-3 (Win % .884). Yes, this is practically a truism…it’s almost exactly the “team that scores more will win” comparison. It’s also true though that when Kelly was given a better offense, he didn’t squander the advantage. In fact, between 2010 and 2012, Brian Kelly never lost a game where he had the better scoring offense. His teams were a perfect 12-0 in that scenario. The three losses? You can likely guess them: 2013 Pitt, 2014 Northwestern, and 2014 Louisville. If you look behind you and check the holes in your living room wall, they probably match up quite nicely. We could have a very long discussion about whether 2013 Pitt or 2014 Northwestern was Notre Dame’s worst loss of the Kelly era.
Offense versus Defense:
One question I did have was whether Notre Dame just went up against bunch of tough defenses. After all, since 2010, Stanford and Michigan State have pretty consistently been on Notre Dame’s schedule and been among the leaders in scoring defense. Bowl games versus Florida State, Alabama, and LSU all pitted Notre Dame versus a top 10 scoring defense. 2011 Michigan and 2012 BYU were also top 10 scoring defenses Notre Dame was asked to play.
There was some, as Mike Mayock would say “fun stuff” buried in this information. Just 23 times Notre Dame’s scoring offense rank was better than its opponent’s scoring defense rank. Kelly’s squads managed to go 17-6 (Win % .749). That comes out to about a win better than would be expected based on Kelly’s career win percentage at ND.
The worst mismatch during the Kelly era for Notre Dame was the National Championship game when Notre Dame’s 80th ranked scoring offense went up against Alabama’s 1st ranked scoring defense, which resulted in a rank disadvantage of 79 spots. We know how that ended up. If you looked at the worst 23 such disadvantages in the Brian Kelly era, the squad went….17-6. The exact same record as any time the offense outranked the opponent defense.
While Notre Dame has frequently been up against a defense relatively better than its offense (scoring wise), Brian Kelly’s generally found a way to avoid catastrophe, but there is a reason to worry whether he can overcome those odds consistently. Kelly’s 17-6 record when at the greatest disadvantage is aided by the fact that the 2012 team which had a terrible scoring offense and faced 6 top 25 defenses was anchored by the second ranked scoring defense in the FBS. As much as some would like to point to Alabama for being a model of how to rely consistently on good defense, keep this in mind: 2012 Alabama was the 12th ranked scoring offense as well.
Bob Diaco was/is a well-groomed guy. Never a hair out of place. Always clean-shaven. Just real gosh darn consistent. Turns out, so were his defenses. In stark comparison to the ever-fluctuating offensive performances, Diaco’s defenses put up a top 30 scoring defense like clock work ranking 23, 24, 2, and 27 from 2010-2013. Brian Vangorder came in and showed some flashes of brilliance early: Michigan we shall never forget you. But injuries accompanied by a drastic uptick in the caliber of offense played doomed the 2014 Irish. Notre Dame finished ranked 85th in scoring defense in 2014. If you add the rankings of Diaco’s defenses together, they equal 76. 2014’s defense was not good.
The story’s not all that compelling when considering games where Notre Dame had a relative scoring defense advantage. Given the general strength of Diaco’s defenses, Notre Dame was the better defense in 42/65 games since 2010. The team’s gone 33-9 (Win % .786) in those games. In the 22 games where Notre Dame’s had a worse scoring defense (versus 2013 BYU the two teams had the exact same scoring defense rank), the team managed to go just 11-11 (Win % .500). When you consider the number of good defenses Notre Dame has played, this isn’t as bad as it seems. Looking at the 22 worst scoring offense disadvantages of the Kelly era, the team went 10-12 in such contests. The axiom that a good defense is better than a good offense seems to hold some weight.
Scoring Defense Matters Most:
So, about that axiom of defense beats offense. Brian Kelly’s generally had a quality scoring defense and has generally faced poor scoring offenses. In fact, Notre Dame’s faced a scoring offense that was ranked higher than their scoring defense just 15 times in the Kelly era. 9 of those games took place in 2014. Notre Dame went 5-4 in such games in 2014. Overall, Kelly’s 7-8 at Notre Dame in those contests.
The most staggering of the Kelly statistics is what happens when his defense has faced a particularly poor offense. 31 times in the Kelly era Notre Dame’s scoring defense has outranked its opponent’s scoring offense by 25 or more spots. In those games, Notre Dame is 30-1 (Win % .968). The only loss during that time frame? 2013 Pitt. Seriously, 2014 Northwestern might be fresher, but 2013 Pitt is quite possibly the uglier loss.
So let that digest, leave your thoughts in the comments section, and I’ll be back next week to start to add in some more nuance. Like I said, we’re easing into this process. You don’t train to run a marathon by running a marathon. It’s a long offseason, so let’s enjoy this slowly and adjust as truths reveal themselves.
- Who the _______ am I Watching? ND’s Depth Chart (Literally) by the Numbers (Part II) - August 29, 2019
- Who the _______ am I Watching? ND’s Depth Chart (Literally) by the Numbers - August 27, 2019
- The People’s Free Guide to ND Football 2019 - August 26, 2019