There has been a lot of talk about the ceiling of the Notre Dame football team since the Cotton Bowl loss to national champion Clemson. “The Irish have hit their ceiling” Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote in his 2019 mini-preview, essentially dismissing them as a title contender with that sentence. (That’s literally what he wrote. “Notre Dame seems to have hit their ceiling.” That’s it, that’s the take.)
This is of course lazy, you ever hear people talk about Stanford in terms of having a ceiling? Of course not. And if folks insist on using the phrase, they could talk about why they feel that way. Notre Dame won’t bend their standards in terms of academic requirements to close the gap with the top teams, and therefore won’t land the type of players necessary to compete. A program like Michigan, who is not good and can’t get over the hump against the top teams they face regular season or otherwise, doesn’t hear about ceilings because folks know they’ll bring in anyone they can get. They are always building, while Notre Dame is stagnant. Again, this is a lazy take, but it could be made clear why it’s being made.
That being said, Notre Dame does need to close the gap, and there are ways to do that which aren’t pie in the sky. In fact, they are happening right now!
This is obviously the biggest thing and I’m going to ignore the elephant in the room for a second and talk about the good news. Notre Dame has been very good at accumulating four star talent the last few seasons, and it has fueled their rise the last two seasons. There are four teams in the country who have more four star players on the roster than the Irish–Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. Not coincidentally, those first three teams are #’s 1, 2, and 3 in the team talent rankings, with LSU 7th. Notre Dame comes in at 10th. Of the 21 recruits signed in the 2019 cycle, 15 are rated as four stars according the 247’s composite rating, and if Notre Dame can land defensive players Isaiah Foskey and/or Asa Turner, it’ll be two more four star players to the haul. Kelly is building a very good base of talent on his team and it has paid off for him. That’s the good news.
The bad news is what everyone already suspects. They don’t have the top flight talent of those other programs. Those top three schools all have double digit five star players, the Irish currently have one. Notre Dame’s opponent in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson, boasted nine, five star players to 36 four stars. Watching the game, it was those five stars that made the difference. And beyond just five stars, the Irish are devoid of many top 100 players overall. Presently, their top line talent is lacking.
Is Notre Dame going to miss out on the elite talent year after year? Many, like Dan Wolken, assume yes, which leads to the “ceiling” talk. But, there is a lot of promise in the 2020 class for Notre Dame. The Irish are strongly linked to at least 10 prospects in the top 100 according to 247, something that was not the case in the last cycle. They already have three committed players just outside the top 100, adding 4-5 players above them would be a strong haul that further brings the team closer to the top in terms of talent.
The secret to Clemson’s success has been strong recruiting–although since 2008 they’ve only signed three top 10 classes–and the continuity of the staff. They don’t see turnover at the top, with their coordinators staying in tact, along with head coach Dabo Swinney. Notre Dame had a scare this week with offensive coordinator Chip Long interviewing with Alabama, but he has elected to stay with the Irish program. After going 22-4 since the arrival of Long and defensive coordinator Clark Lea, keeping those two around was vitally important. They are two bright, young coaches who can grow with the program and build it to fit what they are doing, and what they are doing is very successful.
This one is more important to Notre Dame than the other top schools, because they don’t turn over talent the way the Clemson’s of the world do. The thing with building through four star talent is it’s more likely those players need a year to develop before being counted on to win. Where is Notre Dame if McGlinchey and Nelson move on after 2016? Or if Tillery, Coney, and Tranquill opt for the NFL after 2017?
Notre Dame was dealt a blow in 2017 when it lost Josh Adams, and Equanimeous St. Brown to the NFL, plus the losses of receiver Kevin Stepherson and running backs CJ Holmes and Deon McIntosh. Talent retention isn’t simply losing players to the NFL after all. But, the core of their team stayed intact, and it obviously brought a great season.
Julian Love forgoing his senior year hurts, but the returns of Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem were paramount, and Notre Dame had to have them. Losing all three would have been something close to a death blow to their 2019 prospects.
Notre Dame is right there as a top five team, evidence suggests they should stay in that range, and are a strong class away from reaching the top tier of college programs. Of course, that strong class has to come and it will be a challenge for the staff. Luckily, a strong class is not the main ingredient, but the final touches on a cake Notre Dame has been putting together for two plus years.