It is no different for any of the big-name coaches in college football. When you coach one of the premier college football programs in the country, you beat up on the bad teams and compete for playoff spots by rising up and knocking off another one or two of the big boys per year.
In 78 games as head coach at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has won 53 times and lost 23. He’s won 12 games once (2012), 10 games once (2015), nine games once (2013) and eight games three times (2010-11, 2014).
Like any coach that has placed his team among the upper echelon of college football – if not the elite – Kelly has dominated the lesser foes and struggled against teams that ultimately conclude the season among the nation’s top 10-to-15.
The following is the breakdown of Kelly’s record based upon how many losses that team had during the regular season plus a bowl game.
• 12-loss teams: 0-0
• 11-loss teams: 1-0
• 10-loss teams 4-0
• 9-loss teams: 6-0
• 8-loss teams: 3-0
• 7-loss teams: 10-2
• 6-loss teams: 9-3
• 5-loss teams: 12-0
• 4-loss teams: 4-4
• 3-loss teams: 3-3
• 2-loss teams: 2-6
• 1-loss teams: 1-4
• 0-loss teams: 0-1
Kelly’s Irish have trampled inferior competition, recording a 13-0 mark against teams that finished the season with at least eight losses.
Twice Notre Dame has fallen to a seven-loss team – South Florida in 2011 to open the season and Northwestern in the collapsed November of 2014.
Six-loss teams that reached up and bit the Irish include Michigan in 2010, and Michigan and Pittsburgh in 2013.
The record against five-loss teams is interesting, and probably a bit of a statistical anomaly. Kelly’s Irish are 12-0 against teams that lost five times in a season, which means teams that won eight games and turned in a respectable season.
Notre Dame’s victories under Kelly over five-loss teams have come against Pittsburgh at home in 2010, USC on the road in 2010, Navy in Dublin in 2012, Michigan and BYU at home in 2012, Miami in Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2012, BYU at home in 2013, Rice and Stanford at home in 2014, Navy in Washington, D.C. in 2014, LSU in the Music City Bowl in 2014, and Pittsburgh on the road in 2015.
In other words, against teams that finished with five losses or more – one to Notre Dame and to at least four to other opponents -- the Irish were 45-5 from 2010-15.
It’s been rougher sledding against teams that have finished with four losses or less, which is the separator between coaches that average about nine victories per season – Kelly sits at 9.1 – and those that regularly win in the double digits.
Teams that win more than twice as many as they lose in a season (teams with a 9-4 record or better) obviously are a bit more difficult to handle.
Kelly is 7-7 against teams that have lost three or four games in a season.
The seven wins have come against three-loss Utah at home in 2010, three-loss Michigan State at home in 2011, three-loss Oklahoma on the road in 2012, four-loss Arizona State in Arlington, Texas, four-loss USC and Navy at home in 2013, and four-loss Temple on the road in 2015.
The seven losses have been against four-loss Navy in 2010 in New Jersey, three-loss Tulsa at home in 2010, four-loss Florida State in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, three-loss Stanford on the road in 2013, three-loss Arizona State on the road in 2014, four-loss Louisville at home and four-loss USC on the road in 2014.
Under Kelly, Notre Dame has a combined 3-11 mark against teams with two losses or less. The three victories came against two-loss Stanford at home in 2012, one-loss Michigan State at home in 2013, and two-loss Navy at home in 2015.
The 11 losses have been at the hands of two-loss Michigan State on the road and one-loss Stanford at home in 2010, two-loss Michigan on the road, two-loss USC at home and two-loss Stanford on the road in 2011, one-loss Alabama in the 2012 national championship game, two-loss Oklahoma at home in 2013, one-loss Florida State on the road in 2014, and two-loss Stanford on the road, one-loss Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and at currently unscathed Clemson in 2015.
Notre Dame’s record under Kelly against teams that finish with four losses or less is a 10-18. The combined record of the three teams that defeated the Irish in 2015 is 38-3.
Notre Dame’s 10 losses in Kelly’s first two seasons came against teams that finished 95-33. The record of the 55 teams Kelly has beaten as head coach at Notre Dame was 586-510; the record of the 23 teams that have knocked off the Irish during Kelly’s reign was 372-73.
Kelly has a 29-8 record in Notre Dame Stadium, including perfect marks 6-0 marks in 2012 and 2015. The road record is 14-11 with the neutral site mark dropping to 12-4 with the loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
In three of Kelly’s six seasons, Notre Dame’s wins have come against teams with a combined losing record – 2011 (eight wins against teams that were 48-54), 2014 (eight wins against teams that were 49-52) and 2015 (10 wins against teams that were 58-68).
The most difficult schedule based upon cumulative records was in Kelly’s best with the Irish – 2012 – when eight of the 12 victories came against teams with winning records (a combined 86-68) while 13-1 Alabama handed them their only loss.
If Notre Dame’s record were based upon the sole indicator of the opponents’ records, the Irish could look to 2016 with a degree of confidence, provided the numbers roll over and despite the significant loss of talent.
The Irish have just three true road games in 2016: Texas in the opener, North Carolina State in game six, and USC in the finale.
Nine of the 12 opponents lost at least six games in 2015. The other three – Michigan State, Stanford and Navy, the first two of which are at home and the third in Jacksonville -- were 12-2, 12-2 and 11-2 respectively.
Based upon that cursory analysis, and provided the numbers hold true, that looks like nine wins with the other three determining Notre Dame’s post-season destination.