2010 -- RE-SHAPING THE CULTURE
The Highs: A 4-0 finish including wins over arch-rival USC and former rival Miami…Embracing a new method of offense (power running game) albeit by necessity after the insertion of freshman quarterback Tommy Rees…A stunning rally by the staff and players after the most difficult two-week span -- both on and off the field -- in recent program history.
The Lows: Navy. Holy cow, Navy. And oh yeah, Tulsa, my goodness, Tulsa…The defensive breakdown against Tony Dorsett, aka, Denard Robinson in a Week Two loss to Michigan…The fake field goal/touchdown, forever remembered as Little Giants…The bloodletting at the hands of Jim Harbaugh-led Stanford in South Bend…Losing streaks of both three and two games.
The Pulse of the Fan: Blue, Green, and Gold-colored glasses return as the glass half-full contingent far outweigh (realistic) detractors…A five-star studded recruiting haul led by defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch offers more than hope, it elicits (premature) second season thoughts of contention…
Objective Grade: C-plus/B-minus. If it's not how you start, but how you finish, the end-season 8-5 mark with a four-game winning streak at its conclusion represented true progress after the previous regime's combined 13-12 mark over the last two campaigns.
O'Malley's Grade/Approval Rating: B-minus. Winning at USC after eight consecutive defeats to the Men of Troy was a necessity, and while the Trojans employed a washout, backup QB for the contest, Notre Dame was led by an 18-year-old Tommy Rees and overcame myriad mistakes to win. The beating of Miami was satisfying to every Irish fan, regardless of the Hurricanes lost interest as the winds grew cold in El Paso. The Kelly era, it appeared, had taken root.
2011 -- DISAPPOINTMENT RETURNS, REIGNS
The Highs At 0-2, a tide-turning Week Three win over Michigan State in South Bend…The influx of new power position talent (Tuitt, Lynch, Troy Niklas, Louis Nix)…the remarkable ascent of tight end Tyler Eifert, including championship efforts by the junior in a comeback road win over (lowly) Pittsburgh…An inspired senior season by running back Jonas Gray.
The Lows: South Florida. South Florida. South Florida…An epic collapse at Michigan…A humiliating home face plant vs. USC…A no-show to end the season at Stanford, albeit vs. a far better team…Blowing a bowl opportunity against Florida State….Did I mention South Florida? Because South Florida should be mentioned here…Twitter-Gate: "You can see the players that I recruited here…the other guys here are coming along…"
The Pulse of the Fan: What the hell just happened? Dissatisfaction at the on field product and rampant ire regarding the head coach's sideline verbal evisceration of players…A commonly-held belief that Kelly wasn't pushing the right buttons.
Objective Grade: C-minus. The reality of the 2011 season is that Notre Dame beat no one of national consequence after a campaign filled with pre-season promise.
O'Malley's Grade/Approval Rating: C-minus. Although the Irish finished with an identical 8-5 mark from the previous season, I felt the program took two full steps back rather than even a mild skip forward.
2012 -- REBIRTH
The Highs 12-0 is a nice place to start…The program's first No. 1 ranking since Nov. 20, 1993…Manti Te'o's Heisman Trophy run…Defensive dominance that will never (statistically) again be approached …The upset at Oklahoma that announced Notre Dame's presence on the national stage…Goal Line Stands for the ages...The first snap of the BCS Championship game, with Kapron Lewis-Moore dropping Eddie Lacy after a one-yard gain.
The Lows: The remaining 127 plays of the BCS Championship game…The Manti Te'o shamockery of ridiculousness in January, or whenever…"Wheels up in Miami; Wheels down in Philly -- The Brian Kelly Story"… So close, and yet so alarmingly far.
The Pulse of the Fan: Split, oddly. Notre Dame's program-wide face plant in Miami took Irish fans (and media) off guard, and the epic beating the team suffered at the hands of Alabama sullied what had been an otherwise glorious ride. For those choosing to focus on the positives, there were many -- and at least an indication that Notre Dame's presence as a power was to return.
Objective Grade: A-minus/A. There's only one way to get an A-plus, of course.
O'Malley's Grade/Approval Rating: A. Are you kidding? Notre Dame played for the national championship. Any musings to the contrary are revisionist history.
2013 -- RETURN TO NORMALCY?
The Highs Handling the soon-to-be-untouchable Spartans in mid-September…A much-needed bounce back, underdog effort against Arizona State to begin October…Holding off the equally offensively-challenged Trojans thereafter…Not losing to Navy…Going toe-to-toe with Stanford despite remarkable attrition along both Irish fronts (as 16-point underdogs)...The exhilarating win over Rutgers (just seeing if you were paying attention.)
The Lows: Everett Golson suspended…Eddie Vanderdoes: we hardly knew ye…The transfer of Gunner Kiel (at least after Golson was lost thereafter)…Star defensive linemen that never missed a buffet deal over the summer…Getting bundled by what proved to be a poor Michigan squad…Barely beating Purdue, one of the worst teams in the nation…Oklahoma running roughshod in revenge…Pittsburgh? Yep, Pittsburgh…The innate, uncontrollable desire to pass with a quarterback that needed to be protected by the run…PINSTRIPE BOUND!
The Pulse of the Fan: Blech. Wake me when it's 2014.
Objective Grade: C-plus/B-minus. Wins over teams that finished No. 3, No. 19, and No. 21, with losses to No. 6 and No. 11, objectively, indicates a solid season by objective measures. Had the Irish won at either Michigan or (especially) Pittsburgh, the season would be viewed as a success considering the loss of Golson prior to it.
O'Malley's Grade/Approval Rating: C-plus. Quarterback play and the offense in general as Year #4 concluded was the polar opposite of what Irish fans envisioned when Kelly took the reigns in Dec. 2009. The staff allowed top players to report out of shape, a reality that definitively impacted a 3-2 September. When Golson was injured, I changed my pre-season pick from 11-2 to 9-4. They finished 9-4 -- with a roster not commensurate of a 9-4 mark. The bare minimum was achieved, though to be fair, greatness was impossible after the world's worst off-season.
2014 -- A Tale of Two Seasons
The Highs Right now -- that is, beating LSU in a bowl game with a defense ravaged by injury will make for an enjoyable nine months for Irish fans…The last-second win over Stanford…The public execution of the Michigan Program (at least for three months)…Golson's first three, error-free games. (Unicorns aren't real, either)…The week leading up to Florida State…The Florida State game...The promise shown by myriad freshmen and sophomores pressed too early into action. Cole Luke, Isaac Rochell, Will Fuller, Tarean Folston, Corey Robinson, Jaylon Smith -- as try sophomores.
The Lows: The coining of the phrase "Academic Dishonesty"…The never-ending November…A big, yellow, unnecessary flag thrown in Tallahassee…Joe Schmidt's ankle…Snap-hold-kick-miss-repeat…The late-season play of myriad freshmen and sophomores, pressed too early into action…Unreal, almost laughable attrition focused on the defensive side of scrimmage…Northwestern…New Math!…NORTHWESTERN!…A lack of pride and competitive spirit shown at USC…Turnover No. 22 somehow being deemed one too many at USC…Kelly and Brian VanGorder at USC…USC 49 Notre Dame whatever.
The Pulse of the Fan: At a definitive Kelly-era low until benefit of the doubt returned due to one memorable afternoon in Nashville. Notre Dame is loaded for 2015, and though Kelly might not be on any athletic department hot seat, he will nonetheless -- and perhaps rightly -- be judged within his own skeptical fan base by how the Irish perform in Year #6 of his regime. And that is New Year's Six Bowl or bust.
Objective Grade: D-plus (is there such a thing?) or C-Minus. Four-game losing streaks are tough to swallow at a program as seemingly strong as the one Kelly had constructed in South Bend. Four-game losing streaks begun when the team is ranked No. 10 nationally are particularly vexing.
O'Malley's Grade/Approval Rating: C. Too high, considering the above? I'm attempting to deal in reality, so while Notre Dame never should have lost to Northwestern, and they never should have started flat -- err, excuse me, "fallen behind 34-3 and played miserably early at Arizona State to the point where we might have had the audacity to consider the Sun Devils were slightly better prepared than were the Irish" -- nor, should they have no-showed at USC, it's tough to ignore what was missing from that equation.
That is, most of their defensive talent.
Change merely one outcome with one play (FSU, Northwestern, Louisville) and the season's end-result, considering the loss of suspended and injured defensive talent, becomes palatable, albeit not satisfying.
2015 -- THE OUTLIER NEEDS COMPANY
B-minus, C-minus, A, C-plus, and a kind C -- those aren't championship grades.
And the outlier isn't difficult to recognize. But in December 2013, as the Irish prepared for a post-Christmas bowl game in Manhattan, I analyzed the roster, the staff, the 2015 schedule, the 2013-14 recruiting classes, and the quarterback situation, and pegged 2015 as the year of the Irish -- a playoff run imminent, albeit 24 months away.
The only change to that line of thinking one year later is the curious quarterback situation, one with more questions than definitive answers.
Of course, more than we can project will change between now and Notre Dame's opening kickoff against Texas on Sept. 5 in South Bend. And it's clear a three-week stretch in October 2015 is going to be a bear.
But from my vantage point, there aren't 10 teams better-positioned for a run than is Notre Dame in 2015. Their work has begun in earnest and the reality is, Notre Dame needs to win in '15, or it's likely to get worse.