Notre Dame Football: Can Brian Kelly Lead the Irish to a BCS Bowl?

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Brian Kelly hopes to lead the Irish back to a BCS bowl in 2012.

<p> Can Brian Kelly Lead the Irish to a BCS Bowl?</p>

Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 20 Notre Dame. The Irish enter the year with uncertainty at quarterback, but should be solid on defense.

Can Brian Kelly Lead Notre Dame to a BCS Bowl?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Considering the BCS likely ceases to exist in two years, Kelly’s under some pressure here. The bigger question is if Kelly will be the coach who returns Notre Dame to national prominence and to a level where the Irish are playing meaningful postseason games. In that sense, Notre Dame still has a long way to go. The closest Notre Dame has come to playing at that elite level in recent years was the 31-13 win over Big Ten Legends champ Michigan State in September last season. At the same time, Notre Dame lost by multiple touchdowns to USC and Stanford and then by 4 in the bowl game to a weakened Florida State team. Turnovers were a major culprit in last year’s 8-5 season, but it’s not like Notre Dame was an otherwise dominating team – the Irish were 35th nationally in total offense and 30th in total defense. With the quarterbacks continuing to struggle in the spring combined with the sudden departure of defensive end Aaron Lynch, it’s tough to see Notre Dame improving drastically from last season. However, I’m a believer in Kelly. If he can’t bring Notre Dame back, the probably might be with Notre Dame, not the coach. Kelly has won at every stop, including two Division II national championships at Grand Valley State. He’s won at programs where most of his predecessors have not – Central Michigan and Cincinnati. There’s too much of a track record here for me to think Kelly suddenly will be a failure in South Bend. It’s going to take a few years, but Kelly deserves time to get his chance.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The initial luster has certainly worn off of the Brian Kelly hiring in South Bend, but I am still a believer that the offensive guru will be able to return Notre Dame to national prominence. It just won't happen in 2012. Kelly stepped onto campus in northern Indiana with as much fanfare as a Jimmy Clausen commitment ceremony and he had quick success by winning eight games in his first year. With high expectations swirling last fall, the Irish lost two heartbreakers to start the season that should have been wins. Clearly, the Irish were a overrated by the preseason prognosticators — e.g., us here at Athlon Sports. But Kelly's bunch then finished the season 8-2 with their only losses coming at the hands of 10-2 USC and 11-2 Stanford.

The bowl loss to Florida State was tough to watch, especially for anyone who has seen a Brian Kelly offense click on all cylinders. But the defense has clearly been upgraded since the Charlie Weis days and quarterback savior, Gunner Kiel, is, in fact, on campus. The quarterback position has weighted this program down with Kelly at the helm, but Kiel should be able to remedy the situation. Again, it just won't happen in 2012. This team will lose key pieces at the end of the season — Te'o, Eifert, Wood, Watt, Martin, etc — but has a chance to continue to improve after what could be three straight eight-win seasons. Kelly has recruited at an elite level, will have a stellar defensive line coming back and may finally have his quarterback in 2013 — if Kiel can develop. One huge if.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Considering the success Brian Kelly had at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, I’m a little surprised Notre Dame has recorded back-to-back eight-win seasons. Going 16-10 in two years isn’t awful, but there are high expectations at Notre Dame, and many, including myself, thought Kelly would have this team in contention for a BCS bowl last season.

I still think Kelly is one of the best coaches in college football, but I think this team might be a year away from contending for a BCS bowl. The Irish should be solid on defense, but losing end Aaron Lynch to a transfer will impact the pass rush. The secondary also suffered some key losses and could be an issue early in the year.

While the defense should be solid, Notre Dame’s offense remains a question mark. Who will start at quarterback in 2012? After Tommy Rees’ arrest in early May, Kelly’s decision under center may be easy – Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix. Rees can be steady, but he’s not a difference-maker at quarterback. Finding consistency and jumpstarting the offense has to be the top priority for Kelly this fall.

Even if the Irish find a quarterback, getting to 10 wins won’t be easy. Notre Dame has road tests against Michigan State, USC and Oklahoma and home dates against Michigan, Stanford and BYU. With the personnel question marks and tough schedule, it seems 2013 may be the year Notre Dame returns to the BCS. And considering the upcoming changes to college football’s postseason, who knows what the BCS and Notre Dame’s bowl options will look like in 2014. The Irish won’t be left out, but getting into one of the BCS bowls isn’t going to get any easier. 

Mark Ross
When Brian Kelly replaced Charlie Weis as Notre Dame's head coach in December 2009, the general consensus is that it would only be a matter of time before he had the Fighting Irish back in contention for the national title with annual appearances in BCS bowls. Two seasons into Kelly's tenure Notre Dame fans are not only still waiting for that BCS bowl appearance, they would probably just like to see their team play in a bowl game in January, period.

Kelly's first two Notre Dame teams have each gone 8-5, ending the 2010 season with a victory over Miami (Fla.) in the Sun Bowl and concluding last season with a disappointing 18-14 defeat to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Irish played in back-to-back BCS bowls in the 2005-06 seasons, but those appearances in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and 2007 Sugar Bowl probably seem even further away than they actually are.

So back to the present, can Brian Kelly take Notre Dame back to the promised land that is the BCS? Yes, as long as he's given enough time to continue to build the roster and the team according to his style of play, because I certainly don't see it happening this year. For starters, Notre Dame's schedule this year is full of BCS conference contenders, not to mention a few national title contenders, along with some other potential pitfalls.

Notre Dame opens its season against Navy in, appropriately, Dublin, Ireland. Whether the luck of the Irish travels across the ocean remains to be seen, but Kelly's team is well aware of how the season-opener can set the tone for what's to come. Look no further than last season's stunning 23-20 opening loss to South Florida in South Bend. Notre Dame will be back at it the next Saturday getting Purdue at home before it faces Michigan and Michigan State, two teams expected to contend for the Big Ten title, in consecutive weeks.

The Irish finally get to catch their breath the last weekend of September to prepare for their Oct. 6 game against Miami at Soldier Field in Chicago. Although they haven't played in the regular season since 1990, these two have plenty of history between them. Notre Dame's next four opponents are Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh. They are home for all but Oklahoma, who is considered to be a national title contender this season, but all that really matters is who your matching up with on the other side of the field, and there isn't a cupcake among this quartet.

Notre Dame's final three games are much more manageable, at Boston College, home against Wake Forest, but the Irish conclude their season on the road against USC, another of their traditional rivals and a team that could open, and very will finish, the season at No. 1. For Notre Dame to get to a BCS bowl, it has to finish in the top eight of the BCS standings. Last year, that meant 10 wins. I don't see 10 wins for the Irish with this slate. I'm not sure I see any more than eight. So while I think Notre Dame's football program is in good hands with Kelly at the helm, I still think a return to elite status is at least a year or two away. For the time being, Irish fans should view a return to any January bowl game as a step in the right direction, especially should that happen this year.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I do not see the Fighting Irish making a BCS bowl this season, and Brian Kelly must find an elite quarterback before they get back to an elite level. ND’s talent level projects to an 8-4 or maybe even a 9-3 record, but a big-time signal caller must emerge to navigate the Irish through a tough schedule. Returning starter Tommy Rees’ status is in question in lieu of his recent arrest, so Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson will battle through August to be that difference maker at quarterback. The skill positions are solid with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, TJ Jones and All-America candidate Tyler Eifert, and the defense has some major potential — especially in the front seven.

Notre Dame must avoid the costly turnovers that prevented a 10-win season a year ago. It will be interesting to see if Kelly can find the quarterback to get his offense running the way it did at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Road trips to Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC highlight a very difficult slate for the Irish, but I think Notre Dame has recruited well enough to reach eight or nine wins. However, a BCS-type season will not happen until the offense becomes a major force in South Bend.

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