Hoonhout: Don’t drink the Michigan Kool-Aid
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, August 31, 2018
“I didn’t come here to win the Florida Citrus Bowl. I came to win a national championship.”
If you weren’t sure before, take it from Chip Long — here at Notre Dame, it’s all about expectations.
Every year, there’s the sense in South Bend that the Irish are embarking on a quest to win it all. It doesn’t matter who the quarterback is, if defensive coordinators only last a season or how many decades it’s been since Notre Dame last captured college football’s greatest prize.
To many from the outside looking in, Notre Dame represents a program handicapped by its own insistence on independence; the landscape has changed, while the Irish seem stuck in the last century. But the counter comes down to a single point — if Notre Dame wants to win a national championship, the program has the flexibility to consistently arrange one of the toughest schedules in the country. This year, it’s no different.
Once again, the Irish have elected to leave no margin for error. Brian Kelly opens his campaign with a dance with hated northern neighbor Michigan, a team that both shares Notre Dame’s talent and championship aspirations.
After a three-year hiatus, the rivalry hoopla is back to such an extent that even College GameDay couldn’t resist. And while it may ultimately come down to a coin flip, Kelly does have one trump card up his sleeve: The Irish aren’t in the Big House, they’re hosting. A big win, and one can’t help but feel that the Irish might just have the magic this year to fina—
Woah! Let’s slow down. Honestly, can we say a win will even matter?
There’s no doubt that when Notre Dame plays ranked teams under Kelly, the results are much better at home. While the Irish finished a respectable 10-3 last season, including a bowl win over then-No. 16 LSU, the team had a mixed bag of results in the marquee games of the year. Hosting Georgia, NC State and USC, Notre Dame barely lost to the eventual national runners-up and smacked the Trojans and the Wolfpack to move back into the Playoff conversation. On the road, however, the Irish couldn’t handle the pressure, first in South Beach and then Palo Alto, as the team closed out the regular season with losses to both Miami and Stanford in two of the final three games.
Under Kelly, the Irish seem to have fallen into a bad pattern of starting seasons strong at home, but stumbling to the finish line on the road. Notre Dame traditionally schedules a California rivalry game in “warmer weather” at the end of the season, hitting the road to play either USC or Stanford. But over the last four seasons, the rationale hasn’t paid off — the Irish haven’t closed out the season with a win since 2012, and are 2-6 in eight tries out West under Kelly.
Looking at Notre Dame’s schedule this season, I can’t help but see deja vu rearing its ugly head. Sure, the Irish may be statistically favored in every game they play this year. And there’s a lot to like about Notre Dame’s matchups this season; while the Irish face a test on the road at No. 20 Virginia Tech and travelling to Northwestern is never a gimme, Notre Dame gets to face No. 13 Stanford, No. 19 Florida State and the 14th-ranked Wolverines at home. But it’s still a gauntlet, and as much as I like Brandon Wimbush’s ability to shine and Notre Dame’s depth, experience and talent defensively, to say the Irish will head into the final weekend unscathed seems a tall order. And then there’s No. 15 USC waiting at the end of the rainbow.
I’m not here to say that a win against Michigan wouldn’t do the Irish a lot of good. I’m also not here to say that Notre Dame can’t change the narrative this season — after all, Kelly and his staff have been going to great lengths this offseason to make sure the team is in good shape come November.
But I am here to say that a win against Michigan doesn’t say anything about what Irish team will show up in the big road games this season. A big win over the Wolverines this early could even do more harm than good — everyone knows how fast the expectations can build up when things are going well in South Bend.
Until Kelly can prove that his team can handle the pressure of big road games, especially late in the year, every home performance should be taken with a grain of salt, even those that mark the resurgence of a historic rivalry.
If the same issues persist this season, maybe it’s finally time to either revisit the scheduling tradition of closing out the year in California — considering Notre Dame’s license to build its own schedule, this isn’t impossible — or call into question Kelly’s ability to lead a program constantly saddled with the highest expectations from start to finish.
So yes, it’s good to be back. But let’s really talk about expectations come Nov. 24.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.