Brian Kelly summed up his situation best.
During a media conference on Nov. 14, three days after Notre Dame saw its chances of making the College Football Playoff go up in smoke thanks to a 41-8 bludgeoning at the hands of Miami, the head coach of the Irish commented on the fickle nature of football fans.
“I think I was coach of the year two weeks ago, and then [now] there’s fireBK.com,” Kelly said.
While it actually turned out that fireBK.com is a website for a consulting firm, and no new websites dedicated to seeking Kelly’s ouster appeared to have been launched in the days following the Irish’s loss, Kelly’s point rang true. Especially at a high-profile program like Notre Dame, one bad loss can cause fans to turn on a head coach — and it takes a lot more than one win to regain their favor.
As Kelly gave that press conference, Notre Dame was 8-2, having already doubled its win total from last year’s disastrous 4-8 campaign. The Irish were ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings that week, and were still in control of their own destiny to make a New Years Six bowl game. Yet some fans truly were frustrated, feeling like the loss was part of a pattern in Kelly’s tenure of Notre Dame losing meaningful games late in the year.
That frustration is why the 2018 season will be College Football Playoff or bust for Kelly.
To be clear, fans may be frustrated with Kelly at the moment, but he is far from the hot seat at the moment. Several Irish players, including quarterback Brandon Wimbush and All-American left tackle Mike McGlinchey, voiced their support for Kelly at a recent press conference. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick was vocally supportive of Kelly after last season, so it stands to reason he still would be after the team won five more games this year.
But while Notre Dame’s turnaround from 4-8 to 9-3 in a year might look like cause for celebration, most Irish fans likely didn’t take a ton of glee from the improvement. For one thing, Notre Dame’s 2016 team was far too talented to lose two-thirds of its games. Irish fans expect their team to be ranked in the top 10 and contend for national titles on an annual basis. This year, that’s exactly what the Irish were doing — until the loss to Miami knocked them out of contention for the College Football Playoff, and another loss to Stanford two weeks later relegated them to the Citrus Bowl.
That has been the most frustrating aspect of Kelly’s tenure for most Notre Dame fans: the crushing, late-season losses (as documented by this November column). A fast start like this year’s is nice, but during the eight-month offseason, fans remember how a team finished, not the mid-October triumphs.
Too often during Kelly’s tenure, Irish fans have had to stomach the disappointment of a promising start de-railed by a late-season stumble. Even though Kelly took the Irish to the national championship game in 2012, in the five years since, fans have started to believe that seasons like this one, or the 10-3 2015 campaign, are the ceiling for Notre Dame. A school that claims 11 national titles in its history wants more.
Next year, taking that next step will be especially difficult given Notre Dame’s schedule. The Irish are slated to play four of their final five games away from South Bend. The schedule also features a season-opening game against Michigan, which figures to be much improved with the addition of quarterback Shea Patterson, and a contest at Virginia Tech’s raucous Lane Stadium.
But Kelly will not be able to use the schedule as an excuse. Not after Notre Dame has gone 0-7 against ranked opponents in the final four weeks of the regular season since 2013. Irish fans want to see that a Kelly-led team can come through when playing under the lights for their Playoff lives. Further failure to do so will only cause frustration to increase.
Overall, this Notre Dame season was an adequate response to last year. But as Kelly himself pointed out, it doesn’t take much for Irish fans’ frustration to boil to the surface. Another nine-win season might not result in Kelly’s immediate firing, but anything short of a College Football Playoff appearance will cause support to erode further — likely to the point that Swarbrick and company will start to really feel heat from prominent boosters to move on from Kelly.
For Kelly, it’s simple: If he is to have any job security at Notre Dame, next season is College Football Playoff or bust.