Statistically speaking, was Notre Dame better than its 4-8 record suggests?

Statistically speaking, was Notre Dame better than its 4-8 record suggests?

Here’s a startling statistic: S&P+, the advanced statistical college football rating system, ranks Notre Dame as the 30th-best team in college football. In 2016. 

A quick primer on S&P+ before we dive into it, via Football Outsiders:

The components for S&P+ reflect opponent-adjusted components of four of what Bill Connelly has deemed the Five Factors of college football: efficiencyexplosivenessfield position, and finishing drives. (A fifth factor, turnovers, is informed marginally by sack rates, the only quality-based statistic that has a consistent relationship with turnover margins.)

Notre Dame far and away is the highest-rated team to finish under .500 in S&P+, with 5-7 Ole Miss at No. 39 and 5-7 Texas at No. 49. Fellow 4-8 Power Five teams with recent success in UCLA (58), Mizzou (66), Oregon (72) and Duke (78) are well behind the Irish, too. The average S&P+ rank of teams with four wins in 2016 is 91.6, to further illustrate how much of an outlier Notre Dame is. 

In 2015, the best 4-8 team by S&P+ was Syracuse at No. 71. Iowa, which finished with 12 wins and was one drive away from making the College Football Playoff, ranked 47th, while Houston, the darlings of the Group of Five last year, ranked 44th. 

The average win total for a team ranked No. 30 in S&P+ since 2005 is 7.4. 

And by S&P+, 2016 wasn’t Notre Dame’s worst year under Brian Kelly. That would be 2013, in which the Irish went 9-4 but finished 34th in S&P+. 

So this begs the question: Huh? 

Was Notre Dame actually a good team that experienced horrible luck? Or was this a team that should’ve cruised to bowl eligibility but was mismanaged out of a six-win season?

The mismanagement topic is more anecdotal, but a few points here: Brian VanGorder’s defense was disastrous in the season’s first four weeks, ranking 78th in S&P+. After firing VanGorder, Notre Dame’s defense improved to 33rd in S&P+. That shows that a simpler, less complex scheme likely would’ve benefitted Notre Dame, though it’s worth noting the Irish still went only 3-5 after VanGroder’s firing.

By S&P+’s win expectancy, Notre Dame had a greater than 50 percent chance of beating Duke (62 percent), Stanford (52 percent), Navy (67 percent) and Virginia Tech (56 percent). In a normal year, you’d probably expect Notre Dame to beat Duke and Navy and then split the toss-ups against Stanford and Virginia Tech, which would equal seven wins — right in the average range of teams ranked No. 30 in S&P+ over the last 12 seasons. 

But even if you figure Notre Dame loses both toss-ups to top-25 teams in Stanford and Virginia Tech (every other one of Notre Dame’s game’s had a win expectancy below 33 percent or above 96 percent, including Miami, which was 97 percent), losing to Duke and Navy require some further examination. 

In both games, there were key special teams mistakes: A 96-yard kick return touchdown by Duke’s backup returner (Shaun Wilson) that stopped Notre Dame’s early 14-0 momentum, and a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty that negated what would’ve been Navy’s only punt of the game in Jacksonville (even though that penalty should not have been called, that Devin Studstill was late getting off the field left too much to chance). In two games decided by a total of four points, those two special teams mistakes stood tall. And if Notre Dame wins both, we’re spending this week figuring out what bowl the Irish will play in. 

Notre Dame’s special teams unit ranks 80th in S&P+, which stands as clearly the weak link of this team. 

Against Navy, too, there was that ill-fated decision to kick a field goal down four midway through the fourth quarter instead of trying to convert a fourth-and-four try deep in Navy territory. Justin Yoon connected on the try, pulling the Irish within one, but they never got the ball back. 

It’s hard to buy an argument that Notre Dame was unlucky in 2016 when last year it lost so many key players to injuries and still won 10 games. Only two Irish players suffered what turned out to be season-ending injuries this year: Cornerback Shaun Crawford (torn Achilles’, 10 games) and nose guard Daniel Cage (concussion, three games). This issue this year wasn’t depth, it was in the top-end players on this roster and the way they were coached. 

More accurate would be pointing to Notre Dame’s inability to close out games. On a quarter-by-quarter basis, both of Notre Dame’s worst offensive (94th) and defensive (63rd) showings came in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame enters the final week of the regular season with the No. 1 first quarter offense in the country, and defensively ranks 28th in the second quarter and 29th in the third quarter. 

A heavy reliance on the passing game was probably to Notre Dame’s detriment, too, given it ranked 50th in passing S&P+ and 33rd in rushing S&P+. But Notre Dame ran the ball only 55.7 percent of the time on standard downs (90th), often putting the brunt of offensive production on quarterback DeShone Kizer. While Kizer certainly needed to do better with his decision-making in the pocket, he was sacked on 9 percent of standard downs, the seventh-highest rate at the FBS level. 

Taking a step back, it’s incredibly strange that a team with a quarterback who could be among the top three picks in the 2017 NFL Draft would have such a mediocre passing offense. But asking Kizer to do it all, either by necessity or choice, didn’t work for Notre Dame. 

All this adds up to a season in which Notre Dame absolutely should’ve made a bowl game but managed its fifth-worst winning percentage since 1899. This team wasn’t good enough to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl, but it should’ve at least scraped together enough wins to trigger a month of bowl practice and one final game for its departing senior class. It did enough things right for that to be the case. 

Instead, winter came earlier than it has in seven years, and Notre Dame will have an extra month to chew on one of the most disappointing seasons in program history. 

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame on Thursday announced the formal hiring of two new assistant coaches, one of which featured a somewhat surprising postscript. 

The program's new wide receivers coach will be DelVaughn Alexander, who joins the Irish from Arizona State. Alexander coached tight ends for the Sun Devils in 2016 and spent 2012-2015 as ASU's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.

Prior to his stint in Tempe, Washington was Wisconsin's receivers coach from 2007-2011 and also spent time at UNLV, Oregon State and San Diego State. 

"I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country,” Alexander said. “Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” coach Brian Kelly said “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

In addition to Washington, Notre Dame announced the hiring of Matt Balis as strength and conditioning coach, with Balis replacing longtime Brian Kelly lieutenant Paul Longo in that position. Longo has "taken a leave of absence" from the Irish, according to the program's press release. 

Balis has served in strength coach roles at Houston (2001-2002), Utah (2004), (Florida 2005-2006), Virginia (2007-2008), Mississippi State (2009-2013) and UConn (2014-2016). At UConn, Balis worked under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; while at Utah and Florida, Balis worked with current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. 

Whatever changes Balis brings to Notre Dame strength and conditioning will be necessary, as the Irish frequently ran out of gas late in games in 2016. By S&P+, Notre Dame had the second-best first quarter offense in college football last year, but ranked 90th in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Notre Dame's defense had its lowest ranking (61st) in the fourth quarter. 

Granted, some of those struggles were due to poor playcalling and gameplanning, but far too often did Notre Dame's players hit a metaphorical brick wall in the final 15 minutes. Perhaps an infusion of new energy into the weight room will help reverse that trend. 

"It's an honor and dream come true to be part of the Notre Dame football program," Balis said. "I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'll work hard everyday to give our players and program my absolute best."

"Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh," Kelly said. "He's already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn't be more excited to have him in place moving forward."

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”