Coping With a Rolling Tide

With the NFL draft approaching, I set out to investigate (read: opened some websites) high-level talent development among college football’s blue bloods, with the hypothesis that the past decade’s data would reveal Notre Dame to be a bit of an outlier among most of their peers at or around the head of the pack. The program’s recent success has been hard-earned and never inevitable (we all lived through 2016), especially when considering the glut of talent stockpiled at a select few schools. Competitive balance is out of whack and times are tough if you aren’t the sport’s 1%, but little old Notre Dame has made a nice living off of relatively unremarkable but consistently good recruiting.

The Irish are expected to have seven or so players selected in this year’s draft, with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah the only surefire first rounder. That’s obviously nothing too shabby, but it’s arguably an underwhelming output considering the team didn’t lose a regular season game and earned a berth in the playoff. And it’s not that ND simply returns bunches of veterans who opted to delay their professional careers — in fact, the 2021 Irish will return the fifth-least production in all of FBS! A lot of teams have very-good-not-great rosters, but most don’t make the playoff, not even once. That Notre Dame is able to punch above its weight, even if it’s just bit by bit, is cool and good.

As much as the broader college football world refuses to entertain this notion, Notre Dame has made itself into something of an unlikely dark horse; at the very least, it certainly occupies a unique spot in the sport’s landscape after decades of dominance and a too-recent and too-long amble through the desert. Irish teams of late have been unimpeachable when it comes to handling their business against inferior talent (or, a whole lot of college football). They can hang with and beat Clemson on a good day, and get run off the field on a bad one. The Tigers are their own sort of unicorn, as you’ll see in the data below, but I find ND’s near-perpetual presence in the playoff hunt while similarly well-endowed peers flounder to be one of the more impressive feats of the past decade. The school’s historical success makes it a target to most neutral observers, but I implore whoever will listen to embrace Notre Dame: Scrappy Underdog.

This is all just preamble to the real point of this post, which I begrudgingly arrived at only after sifting through the data presented below: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here. Okay, not all hope; definitely not all hope. As you surely know by now, I love where the program is at, and think the 2021 team has the potential to kick all talk of a “rebuilding year” to the curb quickly and emphatically. But one look at these charts shows what we and everyone else are up against, and it’s a goddamn death star. What I really mean by “abandon all hope” is…stay the course and wait it out.

The single best thing that could happen for Notre Dame’s title hopes in the coming years — the One Weird Trick to open that window — is out of its control entirely. There’s really no way around it; Nick Saban’s gotta retire. It will take a dramatic restructuring of the current order to get ND as close to a championship as they were in 2012, where one more measly Kansas State victory likely would have kept the Tide out of the title game and helped the Irish back into a title. Until Saban hangs it up, power will continue to calcify in favor of those who already have it (point being, ‘Bama just signed the literal highest-ranked recruiting class of all time).

So. I plotted total round one and two draft picks since 2010 on each Y axis, considering only each school that’s reached the playoff and/or BCS title game during that period of time. I will pause here to note how funny it is that, despite comparable talent levels, reputation, and capital backing their operations, you don’t see a, say, Michigan or a Southern Cal here — be sure not to forget their absence. Those guys have failed at what they’re trying to do, and ND has not.

I think the data is interesting enough beyond ‘Bama: Clemson’s draft output is nowhere near the Tide’s, but Dabo and crew aren’t far off in playoff appearances — having an all-world coordinator without any apparent interest in a head coaching gig, coupled with the best quarterback play money can’t buy, helps, I guess, who knew. The Irish are about where you’d expect them to be, but Alabama is such an outlier that it’s hard not to fixate on that.

Same goes when plotting against winning percentage:

Same goes when plotting against average recruiting class rating:

Literally, no one is close, and I’m honestly left wondering how the Tide lose football games, ever. I think the program here that emerges looking the worst (Michigan State and Washington don’t really count, right?) is Georgia — the Dawgs boast a recruiting operation that’s clearly head and shoulders above ND, yet they win at just about the same rate, have earned fewer playoff appearances, and produce less top-tier NFL talent. It’s that last one that really sticks out; with the same average recruiting results as Ohio State, they’ve produced half of the Buckeyes’ total first and second round selections. Woof!

As we’ve covered previously, the Irish do have about the same recruiting results as Clemson, which has managed to establish itself as college football’s clear 1B over the past few years. The overlap between the Irish and Tigers on that last graph can offer a modicum of hope if you’d like to grasp at it — if they can do it, so can we! — but their incoming talent is only getting better, as the rich continue to get richer.

Recent trends don’t show much sign of stopping, and despite our team of choice getting close to the mountaintop on several occasions, the gap between ND and Alabama might actually be widening. (America doesn’t do many things better than concentrating wealth at the very tip-top.) It’s okay to pine for a title while not expecting one. But as much as we talk about what Brian Kelly needs to do to get the Irish over the hump, I doubt that we’ll scale much higher peaks during his tenure (it’s possible to be simultaneously defeatist and optimistic, I think).

We’re in a good place. What Kelly needs to do now is, of course, avoid any backslide and keep winning, while also maintaining close stewardship of football operations so that his successor is set up to thrive and hopefully exceed his accomplishments. What would be a good next step? Tell Marcus Freeman it’s his job to lose.

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