There are surprise teams every college football season, on both the good and the bad end of things. The 2016 season seemed particularly heavy on the bad end, with a number of highly-touted teams in the preseason — or teams that were coming off strong ‘15 campaigns — falling flat on their faces and missing out on bowl games.
We’ll be taking a look at some of those heavyweights who took a big dip in 2016, dissecting what went wrong and spotting reasons for optimism heading into this fall. And what better team to start with than Notre Dame?Many thought the Fighting Irish could contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff entering the 2016 season. Unfortunately for Brian Kelly and company what followed was a season to forget.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2015 recap: 10-3, Fiesta Bowl loss, No. 11 AP ranking, No. 12 coaches ranking
2016 preseason: No. 10 AP, No. 9 coaches
2016 recap: 4-8
What Went Wrong
The camp decision to play both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire at quarterback backfired immediately, as the Irish lost a double-overtime opener at Texas in which Kizer proved to be the far more effective signal-caller. But not even that early-season miscalculation could overshadow just how bad the defense was in the first-third of the fall, leading to the firing of coordinator Brian VanGorder after a 1-3 start capped by a home loss to Duke.
From there, everything seemed to spiral out of control. The Irish passed 26 times in a hurricane in a 10-3 loss at NC State. They yanked Kizer — and put him back in — in a loss to Stanford that saw them blow a 10-0 lead. They blew a 17-0 lead against Virginia Tech. They managed to get just six possessions the entire game in a one-point loss to rival Navy.
The players didn’t give in, but there is a difference between not trying and not executing, and the latter becomes more and more common when you see the same result after every close game. Notre Dame was a preseason top-10 team and widely considered to be a College Football Playoff contender, but the campaign quickly spiraled out of control — which only made the late-season announcement by the NCAA that Notre Dame would be forced to vacate wins from its 2012 and ‘13 seasons all the more troubling for head coach Brian Kelly as he moves on to Year 8 in South Bend.
How It Can Be Fixed
Kelly promised changes and he delivered on that front: Notre Dame hired a new defensive coordinator (Mike Elko from Wake Forest) and new special teams coordinator (former Nevada head coach and previous Irish assistant Brian Polian). Additionally, after offensive coordinator Mike Sanford took the Western Kentucky head job and after receivers coach Mike Denbrock left to become the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Kelly added Memphis’ Chip Long as his new OC (with play-calling duties) and DelVaughn Alexander from Arizona State as his new receivers coach. He replaced defensive line coach Keith Gilmore with Wake Forest’s Clark Lea, who will coach linebackers (with former LB coach Mike Elston sliding back to his previous job, D-line coach). Notre Dame also added former signal-caller Tommy Rees as its new quarterbacks coach Tuesday.
The biggest change, however, may have come with the addition of former UConn strength coach Matt Balis, who replaces longtime Kelly consigliere Paul Longo. If ever there were a sign that Kelly was going to reinvent himself during a crucial year, that — along with ceding play-calling duties to a new OC — is certainly it.
Will all of this pay off for the Irish? We’ll see. They lose Kizer, who could be a first-round QB, but they have rising redshirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush behind him, and the staff has raved about him behind the scenes. He’ll have a veteran offensive line, along with most of the key receivers from 2016. Kelly named 2017 captains at the postseason awards banquet, so he, like everyone else, can’t wait to turn the page and start anew. The schedule is very tough, but the talent is there, at least on the offensive side of the ball. If Elko — with a full offseason to get acquainted — can get the defense to play at the level it played at midseason after the then-interim coordinator Greg Hudson took over, the Irish should be able to easily forget about this past season’s misery in what should be a make-or-break 2017 for this regime.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.