As kickoff for Notre Dame football approaches, we close out our annual Know Thyself, Know Thy Enemy series. In this final installment, we look at the position of head coach.
The Irish: Brian Kelly
Of course, Kelly gets this by default. Opinions on Kelly are as varied as the Notre Dame fanbase. Regardless of where you may lie on the Kelly love/hate spectrum, the fact is that he is the longest tenured coach at Notre Dame since Lou Holtz. Further, Kelly has never finished .500 or worse, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by a ND coach since Dan Devine (and, to Lou’s credit, his only sub-.500 season was his first).
While Kelly’s three 8-5 seasons won’t generate loads of excitement, it’s flat out mind-blowing that it’s taken multiple decades for the Irish to find any kind of consistent success in any form. Since Lou, every Irish coach prior to Kelly had multiple disaster seasons. Multiple.
Further consider that Kelly has done this without having the luxury of seeing the same QB start for him two years in a row. That simply shouldn’t happen in this era of college football.
Feel free to say I’m lowering the bar of success, but when looking out on the landscape of college football, I am certainly more than happy to take what Brian Kelly has given Notre Dame these past five years. I’ve seen some of the alternatives out there and it ain’t pretty (/awaits the “just hire Meyer/Saban/Stoops/Gruden/other big name that’ll never come to ND” retort).
That being said, even with Malik Zaire coming in as, more or less, a brand new starter, 8-5 certainly isn’t good enough with the squad that Kelly is fielding. Baring another absurd rash of injuries that plagued the later half of 2014, this is by far the most talented and the deepest team that Kelly has ever fielded. And by the way, I am able to say that despite some hits to the roster from season ending injuries and a suspension/transfer.
While I can’t speak for everyone that has been a fan of Kelly, the number one reason that I have been on his side is what he was doing at a program level. While 2012’s undefeated campaign was one to remember, Alabama proved that the Irish still had a massive talent disparity to compete with the top tier of college football. After the crushing loss, Kelly spoke as if he realized he had to continue to rebuild the program. It almost seemed like an absurd excuse for getting your ass handed to you.
But fast-forward three seasons later and it’s clear that the 2015 squad is far more talented and far more experienced than that magical 2012 squad. That doesn’t make a 12-0 a certainty, but double-digit wins is practically an expectation for this squad within the fanbase as nationally. It is rare that Notre Dame receives that kind of preseason hype and it appears, for a change, that it is actually based in reality.
This season, far more than 2012, will define his legacy as head coach of Notre Dame. 2012 can be considered a flash in the pan, but 2015 is the realization of Kelly’s vision of the program. The roster is completely his and the depth of talent that he preached in 2012 has been achieved.
The pieces are all there. Now it’s time to see what he does with it.
The Enemy: Paul Johnson
I’ll be honest, I really wanted to find a way to shoe-horn Steve Sarkisian in here. Not because I believe he’s the best coach that we will face this season (which should be obvious based on the header above), but because I want to make all kinds of jokes.
However, a combination of making crap up to make Sark look better than I believe he actually is, plus a lack of material that could easily be score-boarded by the absolute disaster that ended the 2014 regular season, I thought better of it. Any attempt at that would become a rambling, slurring mess full of profanity that would just be embarrassing prose.
So I am rolling with Paul Johnson, head coach of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
If you are a regular reader here at HLS and/or follow my ramblings on Twitter (bless you for dealing with that madness), you know that I love the triple option. The offense so simple, but incredibly effective when run well. However, defenses have long since figured out how to effectively stop it. So the offensive gurus of today are trying to perfect a different kind of option, the packaged play, because defenses haven’t yet gotten wise on how to completely shut it down when run correctly.
But Paul Johnson? Hell no, he’s going to run the triple option down your throat because screw you that’s why. Seriously, Paul Johnson believes in the triple option offense so much that he has a beef with current Irish coach Brian VanGorder for scrapping the offense at Georgia Southern:
“VanGorder had made some comments that he didn’t think too highly of the offense, and Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,'” Inman said. “I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.'”
Y’all, I can’t help but love that. He is pissed at another human for not being a fan of his offensive scheme. The WWE couldn’t even imagine that kind of an angle.
Johnson is on his own personal mission to prove the triple option can still work and he’s been succeeding. Last year, Georgia Tech, finished as the runner-ups in the ACC after giving Florida State all they could handle in the ACC Championship. Before that, he closed the regular season with wins against Clemson and Georgia, the later of which was on the road. After the near miss at the ACC title game, the Bees steamrolled Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
That recent success isn’t the sole reason why Georgia Tech is one of my most feared opponents on this year’s schedule. It isn’t even the fact that he managed to snap Navy’s losing streak to the Irish back in 2007. It’s not just because he runs the triple option with legitimate monsters and not undersized Midshipmen.
No, it’s because Johnson knows the triple option better than any human on the planet. Not only that, he finds way to still throw in some innovative wrinkles into what many feel is an obsolete system. Most teams run the triple option to try and level the playing field when facing superior talent and size. Johnson is doing it because he believes he can beat any team with it.
And with a .628 winning percentage at Georgia Tech (2nd all time at Tech and the most successful coach since…George O’Leary), he’s proving it.