Brian Kelly spent his first season in South Bend building for the future. That meant moving the program back in a positive direction.
Notre Dame finished 8-5 in Kelly’s first year, with a big 33-17 victory over Miami (Fla.) in the Sun Bowl.
But it wasn’t an easy year for Kelly.
The Irish were sitting at 4-5 after a bad home loss to Tulsa (28-27) on Oct. 30. Kelly and Notre Dame needed to rebound and did, beating a good Utah team (28-3) two weeks later. It was a key win for Kelly that quieted critics.
The Utah win was the start of a four-game winning streak – all without starting quarterback Dayne Crist, who injured his left knee early in the Tulsa loss. Crist, a senior, is back and was named the starter by Kelly earlier this month.
Kelly also had to deal with the death of Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan, who was killed on Oct. 27 after the tower he was filming practice from collapsed during high winds.
After that tumultuous first season, Kelly begins his all-important second season against South Florida on Saturday.
Expectations are high this season. Some publications have Notre Dame playing in a BCS bowl in January. Notre Dame starts the season No. 16 in the Associated Press top 25 and No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
Notre Dame has a tough schedule and will need a 10-2 record to get into the conversation for a BCS at-large selection. And it all starts Saturday in South Bend against South Florida.
“South Florida is going to be a great challenge for us,” Kelly said during his press conference on Tuesday. “I think it starts, when you talk about South Florida, with their head coach, Skip Holtz, who has done a very, very good job in a very short period of time.”
The Bulls, who begin their second season under Holtz on Saturday, should contend for the Big East title.
“I think a lot of publications have picked them to be a BCS team,” Kelly said.
South Florida doesn’t return a lot of starters, but dangerous dual-threat quarterback B.J. Daniels is back.
“As it relates to players, you start with B.J. Daniels, the quarterback.” Kelly said. Kelly also said that he has experience going against Daniels from his days in the Big East. He called defending Daniels “a challenge.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Notre Dame after South Florida. Next up is a huge night game against Denard Robinson and Michigan (the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium). The Michigan game could be an early great indicator to how well the Irish will end up this season. A good Michigan State team follows in South Bend, then at Pittsburgh and at Purdue, and a three-game home stretch against Air Force, USC and Navy. Wake Forest comes to South Bend, but Notre Dame then has a game against Maryland, which should be pretty good this season, in Washington, D.C. Notre Dame finishes with a home game against Boston College and at Stanford to face Andrew Luck.
Are there 10 wins in that schedule? There are definitely not 10 sure wins.
The good news for Kelly is that Crist is back. Crist is coming back from the second major knee injury of his career.
“He really needed this summer,” Kelly said of Crist. “So we didn’t know until we got back working with the guys as to whether he would have that escapability that’s necessary in any offense, whether it’s a pro-style offense or spread offense. We really didn’t know until we got back to camp. So there were a lot of questions as to whether he could do it. He answered those questions in my mind this summer.”
Star wide receiver Michael Floyd was suspended in March for a DUI, but was reinstated to the team earlier this month. Fellow wide receiver Theo Riddick offers intriguing possibilities with his talent.
The defense, led by linebacker Manti Te’o, needs to play better, as it did over the last four games last season.
Recruiting has also been going well for Kelly. Kelly addressed a major need along the defensive front by landing some big-time recruits with his first class: linebacker Ishaq Williams (6-5, 255), defensive end Aaron Lynch (6-6, 265) and defensive end Stephon Tuitt (6-6, 295).
With some pieces in place and the rebuilding of the program progressing, can Notre Dame take a major step in year two of Kelly’s tenure? Saturday will provide the first answer.