In 2009, Notre Dame was projected by the computer to go 8-4 and finish out of the Top 25. Its expectations were lower than the norm as Phil Steele, Athlon's, The Sporting News, Game Plan and Sports Illustrated were among the many national publications that had the Irish in their Top 25. Steele had the Irish ranked 7th.
In the end, even the computer's projection was overly generous as Notre Dame stumbled to a 6-6 mark. Though it was minimally bowl eligible, the school opted not to accept a postseason bid and missed the bowl season for the second time in the last three years.
While Notre Dame underperformed, Navy and Army exceeded expectations. The Middies were projected to fall to 5-7, but turned in a 10-4 campaign that culminated in a 35-13 rout of Missouri in the Texas Bowl. Meanwhile, The Black Knights posted a 5-7 record for their best finish since 1996 (10-2).
The writing was on the wall for Charlie Weis after the Irish ended their season on November 28 with a come-from-ahead loss at Stanford. It was Notre Dame's fourth consecutive loss as it concluded its third straight season with at least 6 losses for the first time in school history. Two days later, Weis was fired.
There are those who charge that Notre Dame is responsible for bringing all of this failure upon itself through its instability in the coaching staff. The 2008 Hawaii bowl win over Hawaii was Notre Dame's first postseason triumph since 1993 when Lou Holtz was the head coach.
Brian Kelly is Notre Dame's fourth head coach in a decade (excluding George O'Leary who was hired to replace Bob Davie after the 2001 season but never coached a game). Davie and Tyrone Willingham preceded Weis and none were given more than 5 years. Willingham was cut loose after just 3 seasons.
Kelly has gained the reputation of a quick fix-it man, but he will need to do more than find a quick fix if he intends to outlast his recent predecessors.
After all, Willingham started his first season in South Bend with eight straight wins and finished 10-3. The Irish stumbled to 5-7 the next year, followed by a 6-6 campaign. Weis was 9-3 in his first season, including a Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State in Notre Dame's first BCS bowl appearance since 2000. Weis' next squad went 10-3, but was blown out by LSU in the Sugar Bowl. His 19-6 record in the first two seasons then deteriorated to a 16-21 mark over the last three campaigns.
Kelly had a successful 13-year career at Division 2 Grand Valley State (118-35-2) where he won two national titles. But his stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati have each lasted only 3 seasons - by his own choosing, of course. He was 19-16 with the Chippewas and 34-6 with the Bearcats. Over the last two seasons, Kelly led Cincinnati to unprecedented heights with back-to-back Big East titles and BCS bowl berths. He guided the 2009 Bearcats team to an undefeated regular season (12-0) and 3rd-place finish in the BCS Standings. Kelly was rewarded for his success with the Home Depot Coach of the Year Award the night before his departure to Notre Dame was officially announced.
Notre Dame's 2010 schedule features 8 of the same opponents it faced last season - Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Navy and USC - and the Irish went 3-5 against those schools. They are forecasted to go 2-6 against that group this time around with losses to Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pitt, Navy and USC. However, the margins are under 5 points on four of those games. Victories are predicted for their first two games when they draw Purdue and Michigan to South Bend.
The computer doesn't project any of Notre Dame's opponents, other than Utah, to finish in the top 25, so the schedule only ranks 32nd nationally. But even if the forecast is correct, make no mistake that the Irish' schedule is consistently challenging as only three of its foes are expected to turn in losing seasons (Purdue, Western Michigan and Army).
Kelly's first task is to find replacements for QB Jimmy Clausen and top receiver Golden Tate, both of whom entered the NFL draft a year early.
Navy has won 2 its last 3 meetings with the Irish after coming up on the losing end in 43 consecutive tries, an NCAA record for consecutive losses to the same opponent. This year, the Middies are a 1.47-point computer favorite to defeat the Irish again.
Paul Johnson engineered the revival at Annapolis and his primary assistant, Ken Niumatalolo, has kept it going after Johnson's departure to Georgia Tech. Navy has put together seven consecutive winning seasons and bowl trips, going 61-29 overall with a 3-4 record in the postseason. The Johnson/Niumatalolo option offense led the nation in rushing for four straight seasons from 2005-2008 and has finished among the top four teams each year since 2002.
Navy's 2010 schedule features three games at NFL sites around the northeast. The Middies open with Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, face Notre Dame at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, and end the season with the traditional rivalry game against Army at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
The Naval Academy's projected 9-3 finish includes a 3-game stretch from October 9 to October 23 where it is favored to win each game by just 1.08 to 1.47 points.
Army has been the consistent laggard among the three major independents, but made huge strides in its first season under Rich Ellerson with a 5-7 campaign. It was Army's best record since the 1996 squad turned in West Point's last winning season (10-2), though the victories came against teams that were a combined 8-51 - Eastern Michigan (0-12), Ball State (2-10), Vanderbilt (2-10), VMI (2-9, FCS) and North Texas (2-10).
Like Navy, Army's 2010 schedule features 3 high-profile neutral site games. In addition to the Navy game, the Black Knights face Rutgers at New Meadowlands, and Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium. A predicted 5-7 finish could possibly be much better as Army's schedule ranks just 108 out of 120 FBS teams. Among the forecasted losses are home games against Temple and Air Force, and road trips to such unrenowned programs as Duke and Kent State.
Is is possible that Navy's 7-year grip on the Commander-In-Chief's trophy is in peril? The Middies are a 5.05-point underdog at Air Force, but are favored over Army by 12.78 points in the season finale at Philadelphia on December 11.