As Brian Kelly observed the first practice of the 2015 season at the Culver (Ind.) Academies last week, he couldn’t help but be concerned with how the tempo of Day One might impact Notre Dame’s performance on game day in September.
“As a football team, it’s important that we get off to better starts,” Kelly said. “We play Texas and we play Virginia, and I told our team it’s going to be 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity when we go down to Virginia. They better use this opportunity from a conditioning standpoint.
“We’ll play Georgia Tech early, we play Clemson early…we’ve got to get off to a fast start.”
Fast starts to seasons since the eighth of Lou Holtz’s 11-year reign have been infrequent. Under Holtz, the Irish won nine of 11 opening games and went 33-7-1 in games played in August/September.
Since then, getting off to fast (undefeated) starts has been difficult for Notre Dame. Even Holtz was just 9-4 in September in his final three seasons with the Irish, beginning a streak of eight seasons (1994-2001) without an unscathed September.
In the last 21 seasons, the Irish have had just three undefeated Septembers – 2002 in Tyrone Willingham’s first season at Notre Dame, and twice under Kelly (2012, 2014).
Bob Davie (1997-2001) had the toughest time getting out of the chute with a 6-12 mark in the opening month of the season. After that initial burst in ’02, Willingham was 4-4 in September over his final two years with the Irish.
Charlie Weis (2005-09) lost at least one game in four Septembers, in addition to the horrific 0-5 start in 2007. Weis was 13-9 in September.
Under Kelly, the highs and lows have been dramatic. The Irish started out 1-3 in 2010, 2-2 in 2011 and 3-2 in 2013. By going 4-0 in 2012 and 2014, it marked the first time since Holtz’s streak of four years without a September loss (13-0 from 1987-90) that the Irish had two unblemished marks in a three-year span.
“We have to give 100 percent 100 percent of the time for us to be in great physical condition,” Kelly said. “I thought we had a great summer, but we have to continue this through football-related activities in our 11-on-11s, 7-on-7s and our running. We have to be in our best physical condition.”
Although Notre Dame’s opening opponent – Texas – finished 6-7 last year, there’s talent on the Longhorn roster coached by former Irish defensive line coach Charlie Strong.
And while the Longhorns haven’t lost an opener since 1999, each of the last four Irish head coaches has dropped an opener.
• Davie’s 2001 Irish had the unenviable task of taking on No. 5-ranked Nebraska in Lincoln, which resulted in a 27-10 setback.
• Notre Dame’s 20-17 loss in a night game at Brigham Young to open the 2004 season was the beginning of the end for Willingham, whose tenure with the Irish came to a close after just three seasons.
• In the most lopsided opening day loss in Notre Dame history, the Irish fell to Georgia Tech (33-3) in 2007, setting the stage for a 3-9 campaign under Weis.
• An apoplectic Kelly couldn’t prevent Notre Dame’s 2011 opening-game loss to South Florida, a team that would finish 5-7.
Of course, Notre Dame’s opener tends to be more challenging than most. Notre Dame, USC and UCLA are the only FBS schools never to play an FCS opponent. The Irish have opened with some non-Power 5 conference teams in recent years such as Temple in 2013, Nevada in 2009 and San Diego State in 2008. But those have been the exception to the rule (and Nevada was 8-5 in ’09).
“We can’t round into shape,” Kelly said. “We can’t play three or four games like it’s a pre-season and say, ‘Hey, we’re in pretty good shape.’ (That’s) too late.
“We’ve got to be ready to go in week one. We expect our players to hold each other accountable to make sure it’s a fast start.”