Texas and Notre Dame are two football programs that share company among the most elite of college football. Both boast national championships, Heisman Trophy winners, and are the only two with entire television networks dedicated to their exploits.
The two also share a more dubious distinction: The almost inevitable expectations set for both are met with the lament of college football fans asking, This again?
It’s the unofficial beginning of summer, which means it’s preview season. With one of either Notre Dame or Texas appearing in a variety of preseason Top 25 rankings, I can dutifully report: Yes. This again.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but legitimate rationale supports anticipating one (or both) could bounce back in 2017. Both have a bevy of talented players and welcome new coaches — an entire regime in Texas’ case — that welcome raised expectations.
Anticipation and reality don’t always meet, however. Last season’s opener, when these two programs met in Austin, provides evidence.
Notre Dame and Texas ushered in the 2016 college football season in an absolute classic. The Longhorns’ 50-47 win in double-overtime over a Fighting Irish team, expected to contend for a College Football Playoff berth, was initially hailed as the rebirth of Texas football.
It was the coming-out party for ballyhooed freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, who passed for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He worked nicely in conjunction with Tyrone Swoopes’ “18-wheeler” short yardage sets.
Texas was indeed reborn, just not that night. Charlie Strong was fired in November after a second straight 5-7 finish, changed course with Tom Herman.
The quickness with which UT brass pulled the plug on Strong sends a clear message that no one is interested in a gradual rebuilding process.
Be that as it may, Texas football has been singing those Hard Times Blues since January 2010, long before either Tom Herman or Charlie Strong arrived in Austin. The unceremonious end a first-half injury brought to Colt McCoy’s career in the BCS Championship Game set the tone for the Longhorns’ next six seasons.
Inconsistent quarterback has plagued Texas from that moment, and that’s precisely what makes Herman’s arrival so intriguing. His head-coaching resume is light, encompassing all of two seasons at Houston, but Herman’s track record with quarterbacks is almost unparalleled among current coaches.
Before seeing Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. evolve into a potential Heisman contender, Herman’s Ohio State trio of Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones all excelled in various capacities. Miller was excellent running Herman’s offense in 2012 and 2013; Barrett put up Heisman-caliber numbers in 2014 before a late-season injury, which allowed Jones a historic, three-game stretch.
Herman’s quarterback pedigree extends to his last gig in Texas, when he was offensive coordinator at Rice in 2008. The Owls won 10 games that season behind an incredible 44 touchdown passes from Chase Clement.
No shortage of detractors lined up against Strong from the very outset of his tenure, but there’s no denying he stocked the cupboard nicely. Buechele is just one of 17 starters returning in 2017, most of any Power Five program save Syracuse.
Texas is seemingly ready-made for immediate success under Herman and Co. And, indeed, voters on an The Open Man Twitter poll overwhelmingly favored Texas for a more positive bounce-back this season compared to Notre Dame.
However, the Longhorns have a much longer down period from which to recover than Notre Dame. Coordinator Todd Orlando has his work cut out for him in overhauling a defense that allowed more than 30 points per game each of the last two seasons.
Talent isn’t necessarily the issue, with standouts like Malik Jefferson, Poona Ford and Malcolm Roach back in the fold. It’s a much different Texas than the one Strong inherited, in that regard. UT had zero NFL draftees in 2014, and is much more well-stocked today.
However, this most recent draft showed Texas has a long way to go to catch the Alabamas, the Florida States, and the other top-tier programs to which UT had previously been comparable.
The lingering defensive issues plaguing Texas come after several seasons of offensive ineptitude at UT, pre-dating Strong’s staff. Some major and persistent problems point to a more vexing matter for Herman to solve: At a certain point, it’s no longer underachievement but rather harsh reality of a program’s identity when it consistently falls short.
College football has plenty of examples. Before last season, Pac-12 powerhouse Washington qualified. Tennessee has not won a conference title in nearly 20 years and 2017 marks the decade-anniversary since the Vols’ last divisional crown. Former Texas Big 12 counterpart Nebraska has not played in a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl since losing the 2002 national championship.
Notre Dame was perhaps the A-1 example of history and contemporary reality not aligning — before Brian Kelly’s arrival, at least. The Fighting Irish played for the national championship in the 2012 season, and came a Stanford field goal away from participating in the 2015 season’s College Football Playoff.
Barring last season’s dip, Kelly’s tenure has somewhat restored Notre Dame as a national brand. Certainly it’s the Irish’s most prosperous era since Lou Holtz left South Bend.
Rebounding from a single bad season can be less complicated than reversing almost a decade of falling short. However, the Fighting Irish face their own, unique challenges in 2017.
Much like at Texas, quarterback upheaval plays a central role in the struggles intermittent between the highs of the Kelly era — albeit in much different fashion. Notre Dame’s featured standout performances from Everett Golson in 2012 and DeShone Kizer in 2015.
Malik Zaire showed flashes of greatness to close the ’14 campaign and early in 2015 — including a roasting of the Texas defense in Week 1 — but Zaire’s looming transfer fate continues an unnerving trend for Irish signal-callers.
Things have yet to end well for any of Kelly’s quarterbacks at Notre Dame.
The tone was set almost immediately, when Dayne Crist was benched for Tommy Rees. Crist transferred to Kansas, following his original recruiter, Charlie Weis. Rees was an on-again, off-again starter, losing the job to Golson in the 2012 season but regaining it during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013.
Golson returned with a flourish in 2014, but left with a fizzle. His struggles in the latter half of that season led to Zaire taking over at quarterback, while Golson transferred to Florida State. Meanwhile, Zaire is bound for FSU rival Florida, pending an SEC ruling on graduate transfers to be determined this week.
Kizer joins Rees as the only Irish quarterback of the Kelly era to finish his career at Notre Dame. However, Kizer’s decision to forego his remaining eligibility and enter the NFL draft elicited public criticism from Kelly.
Brandon Wimbush is up after having taken all first-team reps in spring practice.
“He’s got a lot to learn,” Kelly said of Wimbush on last month’s ACC coaches teleconference call. “He’s learning every day. But he’s a great student of the game in the sense that he wants to learn every day. He’s very coachable. The guys really like his leadership style.”
The performances of a new quarterback and new defensive coordinator dictate much of Notre Dame’s fortunes in 2017. That’s a high stake to place on just two roles, but they’re the two who will be most discussed in this pressure-packed campaign for Kelly. And make no mistake, the coach is under immense pressure to improve dramatically on last year’s 4-8 finish.
I worked the USC-Notre Dame game last November in Los Angeles; the Irish’s eighth and final loss. Perhaps it was the rain, but Kelly’s post-game press conference that Saturday afternoon had an especially dreary aura to it. The questions asked about Kelly’s standing with the university probably didn’t help.
Coaches on the hot seat reshuffle, and that’s what Kelly did in hiring Mike Elko away from Wake Forest. Elko coordinated a Top 25 defense last season, and in theory has a more talented roster at his disposal this year. The return of lineman Daelin Hayes to join returners like Julian Love and Nyles Morgan provides a boost — but is it enough of a boost to meet expectations?
Repeated changes often have a canary-in-the-coal-mine vibe, particularly when they’re the result of missed expectations. Bob Diaco’s ill-fated departure for the head coaching job at UConn led to Brian VanGorder’s hire, and VanGorder never produced results on par with Diaco’s defenses.
Last seasons’ 4-8 finish likely ensures Elko won’t have the three seasons afforded VanGorder to mold the Notre Dame season. To that end, the Irish’s quest for a rebound in 2017 comes with a much greater sense of urgency than Texas’.