Undefeated Through Six: Conclusion

IrishEyes concludes its review of Brian Kelly's first six months in charge.

No games played; no rushing yards allowed; no curious 4th down calls. Brian Kelly has 79 days remaining before every decision, every call, and every coverage is questioned by fans and media who know about 99 percent less about the sport than he and his chosen coaching staff.

Aside from an ill-advised cameo appearance in the worst Irish football video in the history of the internet, Notre Dame's new head coach has performed nary a misstep. Most fans are either onboard or onboard with cautious optimism, and thanks to a successful and taxing April, hope once again springs eternal in South Bend.

The ensuing column concludes IrishEyes examination of Kelly's first six months at the helm. For Parts I and II, click the links below:

Part I

Part II

Conference Affiliation: USA

Irish fans appeared to have dodged another bullet in the semi-annual flirtation with Notre Dame's valued football independence. The 2010 off-season was marked – we assume – by Notre Dame's first serious consideration of conference affiliation since the summer of '96, when Big 10 rumors ran roughshod over Bob Davie's initial summer at the helm.

But when the dust settled early this week, only the following meaningful changes occurred in college football's tenuous landscape: Nebraska joined the Big 10 (cool); Colorado joined the Pac 10 (no problems here); Boise State joined the up-and-coming Mountain West (gives us 2-3 more quality games to watch on Thursday nights).

In other words, much ado about nothing for those that live and breathe South Bend football on fall Saturdays.

Whether Irish fans owe a debt of gratitude to the Texas Longhorns we may never know, but the Big 12 remains in business, due largely to the Big Orange's decision to remain. The Pac 10 will likely recruit one more member in search of a conference championship game while the Big 10 has strengthened its national appeal with a storied program in Nebraska.

More important, Kelly can continue to preach the value of independence, Notre Dame can continue to search for matchups with the likes of Miami, Alabama, and Western Michigan, and Irish hoops fans can continue to watch their favorite team battle with the best college basketball has to offer.

In other words, all is right with the sports world – for at least one more season.

Rose Bowl tickets no longer purchased in advance

There are few givens in life, but occasional obvious truths don't need additional verification:

2+2 = 4…Don't drink gasoline…College football teams bend and break rules.

In the least surprising news of the summer, the decade's best college football program was found guilty of major NCAA rules violations.

USC joined Notre Dame's other main football rival, the Michigan Wolverines, as proud programs stung by the NCAA over the off-season (though Michigan's improprieties pale in comparison to the Men of Troy's ambitious housing plan).

Brian Kelly inherited a program that has always been able to both defeat and succumb to the Wolverines, regardless of the programs' respective talent level. Streaks in the UM/ND series are rare, with no team prevailing in more than two straight since the Irish took four in a row from 1987-90.

Conversely, the Notre Dame program has been unable to beat USC in its last eight tries, due not only to an existing talent gulf, but to program stability (and generally, a decided edge on the headsets as well).

But entering 2010, something is lacking at USC and I'm not just referring to institutional control.

Pete Carroll never lost to either of Notre Dame's last two head coaches (8-0). (Then again, he's 0-1 vs. Bob Davie – not many national championship coaches can claim the same). And the Trojans disregard for NCAA rules during the Carroll era ensures that Kelly's Irish won't have the opportunity to take down USC at the height of its powers, though the guilty party will likely be formidable over (at least) the next two seasons.

USC beat ND on the field during their run toward football excellence and NCAA disgrace. They were the superior team in each of the eight contests and outplayed the Irish in seven of those games.

But the series has always been one of streaks with the Irish previously running through USC for 13 consecutive seasons without a loss (the Trojans earned a moral victory with a tie in '94.) And the team out west handled or tied the South Benders in 7 of 8 seasons vs. strong Irish squads led by Ara Parseghian, then took 5 of 6 vs. Dan Devine.

(Illustrating the unique nature of the series, Gerry Faust buried the Trojans in his last three seasons by a combined score of 83-16.)

The tide inevitable turns in any rivalry (ask Navy), and a win this season or next by Kelly and the Irish vs. a top 10 USC team would still likely satisfy the blood thirst for most Notre Dame fans, especially if the Irish are similarly ranked.

But when the dust settles and various infractions committees have met to pass final judgment on an athletics program out of control, I suspect the last eight years will have robbed the nation's best inter-sectional rivalry of three items essential to its lore: a 2005 Heisman Trophy, a 2004 BCS Championship, and a Notre Dame upset win over a powerful Pete Carroll squad.

More than two months prior to his first game as Irish head coach, Kelly received an unexpected advantage vs. Notre Dame's chief foil, as its extremely unlikely USC will continue to dominate over the next five years in the wake of scholarship losses and bowl game bans.

Notre Dame's new leader should take his cue from the former 'SC head man who knew the value of a timely exit – kick ‘em when they're down.

Tai-ler Jones – the freshman starter?

In our first meeting with Kelly in December, the head coached touched on the advantages of playing true freshmen vs. the across-the-board- practice of withholding players from action early in their careers.

"I think (in terms of positions) it does make a difference," Kelly stated. "Mentally and physically, there are a couple of positions, in particularly the offensive line, that would in my experience mean they're probably not ready to play as true freshmen.

"But I'd rather play true freshmen. I've always had better success with a young man that plays, relative to time management, than if he redshirts. It's just worked for me philosophically."

It's apparently worked for Tai-ler Jones, too. In the most surprising personnel development of the spring, the early enrollee wide receiver shot to the top tier of the Irish receiving corps, moving past expected breakout players such as John Goodman and Shaquelle Evans.

Though no official depth chart exists, Jones' status is not a Kelly ploy designed to motivate his competitors; it's not a statement that every job is up for grabs under the new regime; and it's not an experiment. Jones can play, and if he can "increase his work volume" (i.e., maintain better focus in practice), you'll likely see a freshman start wide receiver for the Irish for the first time since Milt Jackson opened at flanker vs. Michigan in 1982.

For more on Jones' play through the spring, click here.

The death of incoming freshman Matt James

James will be remembered fondly by friends and family, including former high school classmate and incoming Notre Dame freshman QB Luke Massa and current Irish tight end and family friend, Kyle Rudolph.

James' classmates honored their friend at St. Xavier's 2010 graduation:

Matthew James Endowment Scholarship


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