The regular season is over and the end of the semester has arrived. Here, we grade Notre Dame's 2011 campaign by position. The finale of the 10-part series brings us to the coaching staff.
Summary: As the Irish enter the Champs Sports Bowl with a different quarterback controversy from the one they began the season with, a lot is left to be desired for Notre Dame fans. What was resolved this year? How can a team turn the ball over so many times? Was progress even really made?
We still don't know much about the quarterback situation, which will only bring more questions when Everett Golson is thrown into the mix this offseason. Five turnovers in each of its first two games -- both of which should have been wins -- is, of course, inexcusable. As for progress …
A Dec. 29 loss to Florida State would give the Irish the same record as last season. A win would signal a one-game improvement from last season, which was a two-game improvement from the season before. Either way, the fact is Brian Kelly has consecutive eight-win seasons to begin his Notre Dame career, something only three previous Irish coaches (Charlie Weis, Dan Devine and Terry Brennan) can say. This team no longer gets pushed around in the trenches, has an absolutely lethal defensive line to build off, and made tremendous strides in its running game. Michael Floyd rewarded Kelly's faith.
Still … Kelly's comments about the difference between his players and Weis' players almost fractured the team, though it managed to come together and win its next four games. The punt return game was the worst in the nation and will need major evaluation this offseason. And slow starts in the season opener (South Florida) and against its arch rival (USC) are inexcusable for a team that could very easily have been 10-2 and on the cusp of the BCS-bowl berth it spoke so openly about to begin the season.
All of that being said, the season could have easily been thrown away after the 0-2 start. Kelly rallied the troops to win their next four and eight of their final 10. He successfully challenged Jonas Gray, who responded by having a senior year no one saw coming. Gary Gray bounced back nicely from a nightmare performance at Michigan. In the end, USC and Stanford were simply better teams, which you can live with. It's the first two games that left the sour taste in Notre Dame's mouth, and the Irish have little room for error next season against an unforgiving slate
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