Kelly's first season in South Bend was, in a word, difficult. The Irish stumbled out of the gate, losing three straight in September against Michigan, Michigan State and Stanford to fall to 1-3. Later came mid-season stumbles against Navy and Tulsa. But you have to give Kelly credit for this much: When the season seemed lost (and with the program dealing with the Declan Sullivan tragedy), he managed to rally his team down the stretch.
Notre Dame finished 2010 with a four-game winning streak, including wins over then-No. 14 Utah, USC and Miami. The final record? A surprisingly strong 8-5.
It was a promising end to a tumultuous, transitional season. But now that Kelly has raised hopes in South Bend, well, he's going to have to deliver.
OVERVIEW: Beware, Notre Dame haters--the Irish may finally be on the cusp of the turnaround you've been dreading. The Irish in 2011 will return a ton of talent on both offense (wideout Michael Floyd, quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, tailback Cierre Wood) and defense (linebacker Manti Te'o, the entire defensive front). They also have Kelly, one of the brightest, most competitive and most successful coaches in the game today. Make no mistake: This team is going to be good. Really good.
THE CEILING: Ten wins and a BCS bid. Kelly's specialty has always been offense, and after enduring the inevitable "transitional" year in 2010--a year in which he probably had to struggle to get his troops to understand his offensive schemes--things will likely go a lot more smoothly in 2011. This team will score a lot of points. And the Irish aren't yet talented enough (or strong enough) on defense to make a national title run, they're definitely improving on that side of the ball. With one or two more solid recruiting classes, this program will be a force to be reckoned with.
REASON FOR CONCERN: The pass defense. Yes, I know. I just said that this group is improving (and they are, believe me). But while I liked the physicality I saw from the Irish late last season, and while I generally like the strength along the front seven, the Irish are still woefully short on playmakers in the secondary. It's an issue that cost this team when they faced good passing attacks (see: meltdown against Stanford).
THE SCHEDULE (key games in bold): 9/3 vs. South Florida; 9/10 at Michigan; 9/17 vs. Michigan State; 9/24 at Pittsburgh; 10/1 at Purdue; 10/8 vs. Air Force; 10/22 vs. USC; 10/29 vs. Navy; 11/5 at Wake Forest; 11/12 vs. Maryland (at Landover, Md.); 11/19 vs. Boston College; 11/26 at Stanford
THE PREDICTION: I was bullish on Brian Kelly from the moment he was hired in South Bend, and I remain bullish on him today. This guy has won everywhere he's been during his remarkable coaching career, and though the stakes are higher in South Bend, he's going to win at Notre Dame, too. In a year or two, he'll have a national title-caliber squad on his hands. For 2011, though, he'll have to settle for a 10-win season—and a long-awaited return to the BCS. REGULAR SEASON PREDICTION: 10-2