It's an easy time to hop on the doom bandwagon, but I'm going to stay off. Let's review a few basics.
Here are the records through two years of the last four N.D. coaches and N.D.'s record for the same number of games prior to the coach taking over.
Willingham2 years: 15-10
Holtz2 years: 13-10
Davie2 years: 16-9
Differential: - 1.5
Faust2 years: 11-10-1
Differential: - 4
Neither Holtz nor Willingham was handed a bed of roses. While they inherited teams that were slightly above .500 for the relevant period, they both took over teams that went 5-6 in their predecessor's last year. Davie and Faust fell into much better situations, however. Both Willingham and Holtz managed to make a slight improvement in the two-year record, while Faust and Davie both had things turning the wrong direction.
It was the third year that so clearly separated Holtz's performance from that of Davie and Faust. Holtz, of course, went 12-0 and won the national championship in his third year, while Faust went 7-5 and Davie went 5-7. For Davie, the high-water of his tenure was when he reached 16-7 after the L.S.U. game his second year. From there on out he was 19-18. Faust was 19-16 from year three on out. Holtz, however, went on a 23-game winning streak and was 87-20-2 from year three on out.
Holtz and Willingham also share the distinction of having played the hardest schedules of the four their first two years. Holtz faced teams that finished the year with winning records just under 74% of the time and for Willingham that figure is 72%. For Faust, however, it was just under 64% and for Davie it was a modest 52%. In fact, the 1998 schedule that propelled Davie to a 9-3 record was by most measures the easiest N.D. schedule in two decades.
Probably the most frustrating feature of Willingham's tenure has been that has been on the wrong side of 3-touchdown or worse losses on six occasions but on the right side only four times. Holtz, however, won eight games in his first two years by three touchdowns or more and lost only two by that margin. Neither Davie nor Faust endured beatings like those that N.D. has suffered beginning with last year's U.S.C. game.
But, then again, one searches in vain the schedules of both Davie's and Faust's first two years to try to find a team of the quality of, for example, the U.S.C. teams of the last two years. True, Davie's team did play the 1997 Michigan team that shared the national championship, but that team didn't run up big margins on most of its opponents. Faust faced good (but not great) Michigan (9-3), Miami (9-2) and Penn State (10-2) teams his first year, but lost all three games and got torched by both Michigan and Miami. In the end, though, it's ultimately about wins and losses, not margins.
The other worrisome aspect of Willingham's performance is that his better year was his first not his second. It's easy to overstate the predictive aspect of this. Holtz's only two "bad" losses were the last two games of his second year, so if one were looking for a trend then it wouldn't have been good. Davie's better second year was mostly the product of a relatively soft schedule. Even the great Ara was not a great second-year coach. His 7-2-1 second year at N.D. was a mild disappointment and his second year at Northwestern he suffered through a winless sophomore campaign before getting the Wildcats on the right track.
It wasn't always a pretty picture for N.D. this year. The Irish had a young team, particularly on offense, and it showed. In essence, Willingham, his staff and these players stand at the fork in the road. One road leads to the land of .500ish football that Faust and Davie inhabited. The other leads to the region of excellence that Holtz occupied. Let's choose wisely.