I said before the season that I thought that changes in point differential were often more meaningful indicators of long-term success for a first-year coach than are changes in win totals. The most obvious contrast is the one between Willingham and Holtz. Holtz improved ND's point differential by 84 points (from -4 to +80) but didn't make any progress on the record (5-6 in Faust's last year and Holtz's first). Willingham, however, greatly improved the record (5-6 to 10-3) but actually made less headway on points improving ND by 74 points (-1 to +73).
So let's start by stacking up ND's coaches starting with Ara.
AraYear Before: -51
First Year: +210
DevineYear Before: +171
First Year: +100
FaustYear Before: +120
First Year: +72
HoltzYear Before: -4
First Year: +80
DavieYear Before: +226
First Year: +17
WillinghamYear Before: -1
First Year: +73
WeisYear Before: 0
First Year: +146
This is encouraging on two fronts. First, Weis's 146 point improvement is second only to Ara's legendary first-year performance. Second, the absolute level of the point differential is higher than any since Holtz's era. Holtz cracked the 200 point barrier five times (1988, 89, 92, 93 and 96) and the 100 point barrier every year except his first and in 1994.
However, the best point differential that ND achieved under Davie and Willingham was +86 in 2000 (ND was +80 in 1998). ND was also at zero or worse three times with rock bottom being the -72 in 2003. So while the record can fib a little, the points don't lie as easily.
Now, of course, there's a limited amount you can learn from any coach's first year. Sometimes factors outside a coach's control will combine to make things better or worse. Just on the points, one would've thought that Devine was headed for the dumps and Willingham for at least moderate success.
In Devine's case, however, the point differential did stay at a reasonable level. So while he wasn't as good of a coach as Ara, going +100 his first year didn't mean that he was a bad coach. In Willingham's case, let's dig a little deeper.
One of the problems that Davie's 2001 team had was that it started out a week or more behind its early opponents (Nebraska actually had two games under its belt when ND played them in ND's opener in Lincoln). I've pointed out before that this has been a considerable disadvantage for ND teams and some of the most notorious blowout losses of Davie's and Willingham's careers came early in the season when ND was down a game. Davie's 45-23 loss to MSU in 1998, his 27-10 loss to Nebraska and 24-3 loss to Texas A&M in 2001 and Willingham's 38-0 loss to Michigan in 2003 all occurred under those circumstances.
The oscillating "decent year, bad year" pattern under those coaches can be explained at least in part by this. In 2000, ND wasn't a week behind early and went 2-1 in the opening three with the only loss being the OT loss to then-#1 Nebraska. In 2001 ND was a week behind and started out 0-3 with two road drubbings. In 2002 ND wasn't a week behind and started out 3-0 including upset wins over Maryland and Michigan. In 2003 ND was a week behind and started out 1-2 with the only win being a lucky OT win over Washington St. and it included the brutal 38-point loss to Michigan. In 2004 ND wasn't a week behind and started off 2-1 including an upset win over Michigan.
Anyway, you get the idea. Suppose, however, that we look at the 2001 team after it got over the 0-3 hangover start. For the rest of the season, ND was 5-3 and +44 on points (so +5.5 per game) and all of the losses were close losses to bowl teams. Willingham's 2002 team was +73 on points and 10-3 (+5.6 points per game). Thus, Willingham's 2002 team was a very close cousin to the 2001 team minus the awful start. Now, to give credit where it's due, one of Willingham's strengths is getting his teams to focus and play with motivation. The 2002 team played with a lot of heart and won a whole bunch of close games, which was to their and Willingham's credit. But in terms of dominating opponents, they were no further along than was Davie's team in the latter two-thirds of 2001.
Now, let's divide up the 2004 team's performance the same way. In 2004, ND actually got out of the gate reasonably well except for the loss at BYU. So after 4 games, ND was 3-1 and +47 on points. For the last 8 games, ND was 3-5 and -47 on points (so -5.9 per game). So while Willingham produced only a .1 point per game improvement on this measure his first year, Weis improved ND from -5.9 to +12.2. Thus, ND was actually slightly over 18 points per game better in 2005 than it was in the last two-thirds of the 2004 season.
Part of the reason that points are important as a measure is that having a cushion can prevent fluky losses in games that otherwise could've been won. A comfortable victory margin, moreover, gives a coach a chance to play back-ups. This is essential to building depth within a team and getting players prepared for the next year. ND had seven wins by 19 or more points in 2005. ND had only six such wins in Willingham's three years and only nine in Davie's five years.
As a result, I think we can say with a considerable amount of confidence that the 2005 squad was much better than any Davie or Willingham team and that Weis's first-year performance ranks second only to Ara in modern times.
Now, let's consider recruiting for a bit. As I and others have pointed out a length, "rankings" of recruiting classes bear only a weak correlation with success three or four years down the road. So while the rankings of ND's class that generally have it in the top 5 are nice, it's worth remembering that Willingham's first class was almost as highly regarded.
The good news here, though, is that Willingham's first full class really did have a lot of good players in it. Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija are the best-known members, but that group includes several others who are starters: Ambrose Wooden, Chinedum Ndukwe, Tommy Zbikowski, Victor Abiamiri, John Sullivan, Trevor Laws and Ryan Harris. It also includes others who appear to have starting potential: Mitchell Thomas, Joe Brockington, Travis Thomas and John Carlson. Chase Anastacio has been a terrific special teams player and there's no reason to write off any of the others who are still on the roster. Of course, however, one of the most highly regarded players, Greg Olsen, left the program almost immediately and two other apparently strong recruits, Freddie Parish and Isaiah Gardner, left the program.
The most notable difference between Weis and Willingham is that Weis is a very aggressive and active recruiter while Willingham was very passive. Willingham was slow to give out offers and was more content to let recruits come to him. As a result, Willingham's biggest most highly regarded class had 21 recruits and the next two ND classes had only 17 and 15 respectively. Weis, by contrast, managed to shoehorn in 28 commitments (actually three over the nominal yearly limit of 25) by employing mid-year enrollment to count three players towards the prior year's total. In fact, if you count the 9 players who signed for the Fall of 2005 after Weis was hired, he has brought 37 players into the fold in just over a year. In the prior two and a half years, Willingham brought 44 players into the fold, but 7 of those are no longer with the program. Thus, in just over a year, Weis did as much to add to the roster as did Willingham in the prior two and a half years.
The most notable deficiency on ND's 2005 team was a lack of depth. Not counting scholarships given to former walk-ons, ND went into battle this year with fewer than 70 scholarship players, well under the NCAA limit of 85. The 2005 roster included only four offensive linemen who were recruited in Willingham's three classes, while Weis's first class includes six offensive linemen.
No class is ever going to have every player pan out to be a starter. If a class produces 50% or more players who start, that's a remarkable success. Weis's first class, by its size and apparently quality, does far more to build depth and a full starting roster than did any Willingham class.
Any fair grade of Coach Weis's performance would have to be a very high one. Of course, this doesn't mean that all of the problems are solved. Late in the season in 2005, in particular, revealed some critical weaknesses in the defense that will have to be addressed by a combination of talent upgrades and improved coaching. Some aspects of special teams were much better (especially punt returning and coverage) but others (for example, kickoff coverage) showed flashes of returning to the dismal state of 2004. While the offense was electric, a more consistent short yardage rushing attack would've meant at least one more win (Michigan State). But even with those issues, I'm confident that we're well on the road to football health.