The independent voice of Notre Dame Athletics

  • Closing the ‘Bama Gap

    by SEE

    This may be Brian Kelly’s best class at Notre Dame. That may not be good enough.  Notre Dame was likely the second best team in the country last year, but second may as well have been 10th given the evident gap the country saw on January 7th.  As good as this year was relative to recent Irish performances, history will little note this era unless the Irish can catch the Alabama juggernaut.*

    So the crucial question this recruiting season isn’t if Notre Dame’s class is elite, it is. The question is,  “is it good enough to compete with Alabama”?

    Given this is all a combination of art + science, we won’t know for a few years, but for the first time since 2008, the answer appears to be “yes”.  To understand how big the gap has been, look at the numbers over the past four classes from Rivals:

    • 2012 Alabama #1, Notre Dame #20
    • 2011 Alabama #1, Notre Dame #10
    • 2010 Alabama #5, Notre Dame #14
    • 2009 Alabama #1, Notre Dame #21

    On average, Alabama’s classes ranked 14 places higher than Notre Dame’s classes.  What makes the comparison even more stark is to look at the numbers behind the numbers.  Here are the breakdowns by years with total recruits, five star and four star athletes:

    • 2012 Alabama 26,3,17 | Notre Dame 17,1,9
    • 2011 Alabama 22,3,17 | Notre Dame 23,2,8
    • 2010 Alabama 26,1,15 | Notre Dame 23,0,10
    • 2009 Alabama 27,4, 14 | Notre Dame 18,1,9

    Over a four year period, Alabama recruited 101 total players, 11 five star players and 63 four star players.

    Over a four year period, Notre Dame recruited 81 total players, 4 five star players and 36 four star players.

    Now, recruiting rankings are subjective by nature and spotting talent in the lower ranked areas can even things out, but no matter how you want to adjust the numbers, the gap is canyon-esque.

    Alabama, with its recruiting prowess, focused development and  aggressive “roster management”  has un-leveled the playing field.  Consider just five star talent. Given these numbers, Alabama can have just a 50% hit rate on developing that talent while Notre Dame has a 100% hit rate on developing that talent and Alabama would still have a slight advantage… and that’s simply not going to happen. Over a four year period, Alabama recruited 20 more overall players, 6 more five star players and 27 more four star players than did Notre Dame.  Throw in the fact that Alabama can add JC players to fill in holes (2 of 3 starting nose guards on Alabama’s title teams were JCs), and that advantage grows.

    That’s the size of the chasm Notre Dame is dealing with.  Make any kind of adjustments you like and it’s still a sinkhole big enough to swallow Irish Chocolate with room to spare.

    But  the Irish leveled the playing field in 2013 and may have nudged into the lead in a couple of important ways.

    From a pure numbers perspective, Alabama has 25 total recruits, with 4 five stars and 13 four stars.  Notre Dame has 24 total recruits, with 4 five stars and 14 four star recruits.  Notre Dame actually has a slight edge in quality, though the classes are so close that’s highly subjective.

    What bodes well for the Irish is that the Irish class combines elite talent, with exceptional line recruiting and overall balance.

    Elite Talent:

    Notre Dame’s stars may be the very best at their positions and 3 of the 4 best players in this class are on defense.  Jaylon Smith is clearly the nation’s best linebacker.  Eddie Vanderdoes has, according to many, outshown Alabama’s A’shawn Robinson in all-star match-ups.  I don’t think the Irish coaches would trade Max Redfield for any defensive back on Alabama’s roster. Alabama’s Derrick Henry is a runaway train of a running back, but many would argue that Greg Bryant is the better overall back.


    The Irish offensive line is at the very least a top 3 unit, if not the top unit in the country.   It compares very well to Alabama’s haul of 1 four star and 3 three star recruits (development matters more here.) On defense, Vanderdoes and Rochelle were both Alabama targets on the defensive line. While Vanderdoes may be the top overall player, Alabama clearly has an edge here with 2 five star recruits and 3 four star recruits.


    Recruiting misses at Notre Dame almost always come home to roost.  The OL problems in 2007 trace right back to Willingham’s poor recruiting.  The QB situation Kelly inherited is directly traceable to Weis’s QB recruiting, which left ND with 1 QB for the Junior through 5th year classes.

    I can only speak to the Irish on balance, but the clear need this recruiting class was the offensive line and the Irish couldn’t have done better here.  The other need was at cornerback, where the Irish may not have gotten the top talent in the country, but nabbed three players with size and athleticism.   Overall, there are no glaring holes that will cause catastrophic failure in years to come. This category is very important for Notre Dame to get right as every other team in the country can plug holes with JC transfers.


    Brian Kelly didn’t mince words during or after the blowout loss in the BCS title game. At half time, when asked what he could do to turn things around, Kelly deadpanned, “Maybe Alabama doesn’t come back in the second half…It’s all Alabama.” After the game he continued,  “We’ve got to get physically stronger, continue close the gap there,…  our guys clearly know what it looks like now – a championship football team. That’s back-to-back national champions. That’s what it looks like. That’s what you measure yourself against there. It’s pretty clear across the board what we have to do.”

    When it comes to raw talent, Notre Dame is back in the game.  While recruiting is just one piece of the puzzle, it’s a critical piece and for the first time in years, Notre Dame is clearly recruiting at a standard that will allow the Irish to compete with Alabama in the future.  Even more promising is the fact that this class was built on the back of an 8-5 season where there was considerable doubt as to whether the Irish could return to prominence.  With that question answered, Notre Dame will be recruiting from a position of strength going forward.

    * 1. Something, such as a belief or institution, that elicits blind and destructive devotion or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed. 2. An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path:


    18 Responses to “Closing the ‘Bama Gap”

    1. ElkhartIrish says:

      The main thing is it’s all getting better quickly. Much better than all those years of mediocrity.

    2. george kaplan says:

      A non-distracted Teo( and definitely distracted coaches and probably a whole distracted team) and a mature Golson, plus two better callls early, would have made a big difference in that game. Not that ND will never be able to recruit with the teams that over-recruit and get Jucos and skilled idiots. This was a great season: if Kelly can do it back to back to back I’m willing to be sold on him. But his talking to the Eagles was a grave mistake, especially since he and Jack knew the Teo story was to break soon.I’m not ready to trust that the guy can coach at this level without getting the school in trouble.

      • How nice you’re “willing to be sold on him.” Don’t think he needs your approval, George. People that hate ND voted him Coach of the Year after a 12-0 season.

    3. Given a change in a play or two in the SEC Championship Game and ND would have played the Bulldogs in Sun Life Stadium. No one seems to be arguing that ND has been light years behind Georgia in talent. The performances by both teams on Jan 7 were uncharacteristic. Next time BK is in that environment, expect the lads to be better prepared.

    4. Anither way to close the gap and none was mentioned is scheduling! Im not saying you have to play Alabama But you need to schedule one or two SEC schools ( Georgia, Florida, or LSU and not Kentucky, Vandy, and Tennessee). Get rid of some schools like Texas or Syracuse! To be the best you have to play the best!!!

      • Keep in mind that the SEC refuses to schedule US and not the other way around. The SEC, with a few rare exceptions, schedule pasties early in the season and during that one week later in the year prior to their rivalry games. ND used to get that rare game against Tennessee and now we can’t even get that…

        • I’m sure yours was a serious intent when you posted but I simply can NOT get by your accusing the SEC of schedule ‘pasties’ early in the season without laughing out loud.

          I assume you meant to say ‘patsies’, in which case I agree with you.

    5. Bama had only 9 seniors this year, including their kicker and long snapper. Hard to think that Notre Dame’s losses are less than those of Bama, even with the juniors at Bama turning pro. More likely, this was Notre Dame’s next best shot to catch Bama for the next 2-3 years.

    6. This is a great class. Impressive the season ND had given the talent gap over those years. Too bad on Lynch, because a top notch DE to supplement Tuit and Nix would have made a big difference in that Bama game. I enjoyed Teo, but he had weaknesses in speed and shedding blocks. This defense should keep them in every game, and they should be hungry after the way the season ended. Couldn’t agree more with more SEC teams on schedule. Gotta get used to the speed and physicality.

    7. Just remember: raw talent alone guarantees absolutely nothing. First-rate COACHING of First-rate raw talent really closes the gap. Give this class to Charlie Weis, and what do you get? EXACTLY!

    8. To say the Irish season exceeded expectations, is a gross understatement. It was a thrilling year that most of us die hard Irish fans fans will never forget. That said, while we are comparing recruiting classes, let’s not ignore graduation rates. ND is an institute of higher education not a minor league football program. I’ll take the student athlete and a competitive team every time.

    9. Let’s not forget that Alabama over signs recruits then runs off the under performers and washouts as do other SEC schools. This enables a team to upgrade it’s talent and depth to something approaching an NFL roster. ND does not stretch the NCAA rules to the breaking point like some SEC schools.

      Vanderdoes and Redfield are huge pickups and would likely be donning the cardinal and gold if Pete Carroll were still strolling the sidelines at USC. USC’s losses are ND’s gains and lets hope that trend continues.

    10. Cool Breeze says:

      There’s a lesson here, ND coaches. The immense talent gap between Fla. and Louisville was meaningless in the Orange Bowl. The two and three star Louisville scrappers intimidated and dominated the four/five star Gators strictly because they thought they were better prepared and ready to kick ass. I wonder how a Saban coached Irish team would have fared on the 7th?

    11. I have to disagree that the gap is that big. There IS a gap, obviously, and it showed on Jan. 7, but IMO the Irish were there a year early. They deserved a BCS game, but not the National Championship game. ND was the only undefeated team in the country, and that, plus the fact that we’re talking about ND, means that they have to be ranked #1.

      Kelly’s remarks at halftime show that he knows what remains to be done, and he is doing it.

      But more important – the members of next year’s team know what remains to be done.
      As you are reading this they are remembering that game and that memory is driving them to do that little bit more in the weight room every day.

      When Saban came to UA he had already coached at LSU and in the pros, so when he came to UA he was ALREADY a big time coach. Kelly came from Cincinnati, by no means the big time. This upcoming team (200 and a wake-up till kickoff!) is going to be markedly better than last year’s, and they won’t need luck to win. Although of course it will be nice to have some.

      ND is back to big time.

    12. I don”t think the blowout loss to Bama was a result of talent as much as it was coaching . How many games did we struggle to win against teams, where our roster would blow theirs out of the water?People think our depth was the big issue, however we couldn’t stop Bama, or move the ball against them early in the game where depth wasn’t an issue at that time. On a coaching level, we are a few years away not a talent level.

    13. Let’s not forget that these thing come and go. Five to ten years ago, Alabama fans were lamenting their mediocrity compared to decades past and USC was the top dog in both recruiting and on-field performance. Five to ten years before THAT, USC fan were lamenting their mediocrity compared to decades past.

      ALso keep in mind that there are other former powerhouses (Tennessee, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Nebraska) that are currently experiencing their own low years. Alabama won’t be on top forever.

      ND’s star is on the rise — our time lamenting our own mediocrity compared to decades past is (it would seem, at least) nearly over.

    14. Vanderdoes inking with the Irish fills a glaring need for restocking the defensive front with top-level prospects. For context, Alabama had two five-star defensive linemen in its 2013 recruiting class; Notre Dame could ill afford to miss on all top-shelf players at that spot.