In eight seasons with the Irish, Coach Brian Kelly has a 69-34 record with an appearance in the National Championship game. At some schools, that would be enough but we are talking about Notre Dame and all the scrutiny that comes with it. As Kelly enters his ninth season, he faces the pressure of Notre Dame’s harder-than-most requirement to qualify for the College Football Playoffs along with uncertainty at the quarterback position. There might not be a worst combination for someone sitting in his position.
Notre Dame’s schedule sets up tough as it does every year. They open at home versus Michigan which sets up as a ‘must win’. It doesn’t end there. There are home dates with ranked opponents Stanford and Florida State. They have two road games against ranked opponents, Virginia Tech and USC. To have a chance being one of college football’s final four, they’ll have to win, at least, four out of the five games. In order to do that, their quarterback play must be much better than it was last season.
Brandon Wimbush will come in as the starter. His legs are his biggest asset and can provide big play capability both, scripted and unscripted. Wimbush’s problem is his accuracy and decision making. The Irish have little wiggle room to throw away points against top flight teams. Even though, they have ten starters back on defense, you won’t know what to expect with new defensive coordinator, Clark Lea. So Wimbush can’t be sloppy in stretches like he was last season.
If there is a need to go to the “bullpen”, Kelly will call on Ian Book. In last year’s Citrus Bowl win over LSU, Book came off the bench and gave Notre Dame a spark. It was more than Book’s two touchdown passes, it was his composure. On the touchdown pass that tied the game in the fourth quarter, Book waited patiently for Michael Young to get open in the back of the end zone instead of running or throwing an ill-advised pass. Even on the two point conversion, it was his composure to let the shovel pass play develop as opposed to rushing it. Letting Josh Adams get slightly up field prior to releasing the ball enabled Adams to tie the game on the two point conversion. The comeback was complete when Book hit Miles Boykin on a 55 yard touchdown pass with 1:28 left.
The key to Notre Dame’s season could rely on Kelly’s ability to play both quarterbacks. In a recent interview Kelly said:
Book will never be the runner that Wimbush is, and Wimbush will never “spin the ball” the way Book does
No one knows how Kelly will handle the situation but if you’re an Irish fan, you hope he handles it much better than he did when had Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. Kelly never gave Kizer the firm “thumbs up” going into the season and the awkwardness led to a 4-8 campaign.
The difference this time around is the differences between Wimbush and Book gives Kelly an expanded playbook. Kelly will have to figure out how to use both. Will he have it scripted by the number of possessions? Will it be based on Wimbush’s performance? Will it be based on time and score? Who knows? But how the quarterback situation is handled will be the key, not only to beating Michigan but also to the season as a whole.
If Kelly can pull it off and the Irish finally make the College Football Playoffs they will have proven that two is truly better than one.