Out Of Bounds: Is 9-4 Good Enough?

Is 9-4 Good Enough?
On the surface, there should be plenty of excitement as Notre Dame looks ahead to a Champs Sports Bowl showdown against hated Florida State on Dec. 29 in Orlando. The Irish have the an opportunity to build on last season’s 8-5 record and get to nine wins for the first time since 2006 while earning bowl wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time since the Irish captured consecutive Cotton Bowl titles following the 1992-93 seasons.

But while it’s always satisfying to beat Florida State, in particular, this game has an eerily similar feeling to the Roy Jones Jr. vs. Felix Trinidad fight in January of 2008 – a pair of former juggernauts well past their primes grasping at a feigned opportunity for relevance. Much like last year’s Sun Bowl matchup against Miami, Florida State is no longer the national measuring stick they once were. The Seminoles have lost at least four games in each of the last seven seasons dating back to 2005, which was their last season as ACC Champions, despite an 8-5 final record.

This season, Florida State enters the bowl season with an 8-4 record, and while they’ve won six of their last seven games, including five games by at least two touchdowns, there isn’t a single win over a ranked opponent and a pair of losses to mediocre conference opponents – Wake Forest (35-30) and Virginia (14-13).

Nearly two decades of general mediocrity has given way to impatience, and I’m ready to see Notre Dame respond when faced with a true challenge. Three times this season the Irish were truly challenged – at Michigan, vs. USC and at Stanford – and each time the Irish failed to rise to the task. I continue to hear that Notre Dame is turning the corner and making progress, but how much does it matter if that progress doesn’t show up on the scoreboard? Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a team that finished in the top 10 in the polls since beating Michigan (finished No. 9 in the AP and Coaches polls) in 2002.

And so once again, Irish fans will seek some refuge in “there’s always next season” while we “what-if” away the mistakes of an 8-4 season to 12-0, maybe 11-1. But what lies ahead isn’t going to get any easier. How often does a team feature as many experienced upperclassmen as the Irish did this season? Michael Floyds haven’t come around for the Irish program very often in recent seasons, and the passing game is likely to take a step backward next season with his departure – and it could get worse should junior Tyler Eifert make the early leap to the NFL, of which he seems capable. It’s not every day that a team has the benefit of four seniors in the secondary, or two players capable of rushing for 1,000 yards in a season.

If there should have been a double-digit-win BCS contender at Notre Dame, this year’s team should have been it. Maybe there are some small victories to be taken away from this season, especially the eight or nine that will show up in the win column at season’s end. But by and large disappointment is what should motivate the Irish this offseason.

Right Call With Rees
Count me among those who have been vocal with my disappointment regarding the way the quarterback position was handled this season from Dayne Crist’s short hook to the lack of development of a second quarterback behind Tommy Rees through much of the year. And I was certainly impressed with the way Andrew Hendrix played in relief of Rees two weeks ago against Stanford.

However, I can understand why Brian Kelly seems so attached to Rees as the Irish enter the bowl season, naming him the starter, and I won’t be surprised if Rees emerges through the spring and into next fall as the starter as well.

Kelly has to start or continue (depending on your current perspective of the direction of the Irish program) building his program toward its apex in his third season in 2012. If history has proven anything at Notre Dame with previous coaching staffs, it’s that year three gives either an ominous or a promising indicator to the longevity of a head coach’s tenure in South Bend. At some point, Kelly is going to have to find some consistency at the quarterback position lest his legacy at Notre Dame be mired by ongoing quarterback controversies.

It seems that there is no easier position with the Irish than the role of backup quarterback, more glaringly so in recent seasons. When Jimmy Clausen graduated, the program could finally move on from a prima donna to a perceived leader in Crist. But then Crist didn’t fit well enough with Kelly’s offense, so Rees was the better fit. But Rees isn’t very mobile, and he lacks arm strength, so Hendrix should be the guy.

Soon enough Hendrix’s flaws will be exposed at which time, perhaps, Everett Golson will finally take the reins. After all, he’s the first hand-picked quarterback of the Kelly era.

At some point in the near future, Kelly is going to be faced with a legitimate dilemma: Does he stay with Rees, shortcomings and all, for the sake of consistency at the quarterback position with a quarterback who knows the offense, or does he attempt a third overhaul at the position in three years … in arguably the most pivotal year of his career?

Unless one of the challengers proves better than Rees by leaps and bounds, which seems unlikely given the lack of playing time behind Rees this season, then I’m not so sure Kelly will feel compelled enough to shelve the quarterback who, if nothing else, has delivered Kelly most of his 16 wins at Notre Dame.

Special Teams Need To Be More Special
Obviously, Notre Dame need to protect the football and give itself a chance to beat Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

But at first glance, the Irish also need to be better on special teams, particularly in the punting game on either side of the ball. Junior punter Ben Turk is just 60th in the NCAA with an average of 40.2 yards per punt, and the Irish rank No. 104 with a net average of just 34.04 yards. They’ll face a respectable Seminoles return game that ranks No. 34 in the NCAA, led by junior Greg Reid, who ranks No. 16 with an average of 11.4 yards per return with a touchdown this season.

Perhaps more concerning is the Irish punt return team, which ranks dead last in the NCAA while averaging less than a yard (.30 yards) per return. The Seminoles led by Shawn Powel rank first in the NCAA with a net average of 42.04 yards per punt.

Mike Elston has done a fantastic job with the Irish defensive line since arriving on campus, but Notre Dame’s special teams have left much to be desired. Junior punter Ben Turk has been inconsistent throughout his entire career in South Bend, while fifth-year senior David Ruffer has been forgettable this season after a memorable senior campaign a year ago.

But the punt return unit has to be the most frustrating group of all, and they’ve ranked in the bottom quarter of the country each of the last two seasons, while showing no signs of life this year. Not only do the Irish put little pressure on the punter, but they have been unable to establish blocking lanes downfield. It’s not the punt returner – John Goodman has been an unnecessary scapegoat for the team’s punt return woes. Neither Goodman, nor Floyd, nor Riddick, nor anyone else has provided many results in the return game.

The culprit seems to be ineffective execution, and that’s an issue the coaching staff will have to sort out if the Irish are to improve.

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