NOTRE DAME — Talk about an awkward and contradictory dynamic Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is facing in the coming days and months.
In the long term, if Kelly returns for his eighth season in 2017 — which most presume will be the case — he will become only the fifth Irish coach in 131 years of Notre Dame football to survive more than seven seasons on the job.
The others? National championship winning skippers Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz.
In the shorter term, if Brian Kelly and his Irish (4-7) lose at No. 12 USC (8-3) this weekend — which most presume will be the case — he will become only the fourth Irish coach in 131 years of Notre Dame football to suffer eight or more losses in a single season.
The others? Deposed skippers Terry Brennan, Joe Kuharich and Charlie Weis.
When asked Saturday immediately after blowing two 17-point leads and falling to Virginia Tech 34-31 if there is anything left in the motivational tank, Kelly had no good answers.
"I mean, I'm at a loss for words really as to what to tell them, you know?" Kelly said. "It's just been a difficult year."
There is plenty of blame to go around for what is shaping up to be only the third season in Kelly's 13 years as a Division I head coach that his team failed to reach a bowl game.
The careless penalties, dropped passes and blown assignments all fall on the players' shoulders. The puzzling play-calling, no halftime adjustments and an inability to protect late leads all fall at the feet of the Irish coaches.
"There's nothing endemic within the program as much as it is a team that has not executed consistently for four quarters," Kelly surmised. "Some of that is guys growing up, getting more experience. Some of that is better coaching, better teaching the techniques."
Kelly entered this season 189-13 as a head coach when his team was leading after three quarters. He's 3-3 this year in such games. Given the blown leads and long scoring droughts that have defined this season, it's hard to argue that Kelly hasn't been out-coached in every game, save for Nevada and Army.
"This is not a program issue," Kelly said to his own defense. "You saw this football team play, how well it can play. This is about consistency."
Remarkably, Kelly is just 16-14 in his last 30 games at Notre Dame, dating back to the end of the 2014 season. Weis went 15-15 in his final 30 games coaching the Irish before he was fired at the end of the 2009 season.
In what would best be described as a cruel and unusual postseason punishment, if Notre Dame can somehow overcome being a 17-point underdog Saturday against USC and pull an unlikely upset, a 5-7 Irish team still stands a decent chance of being invited to a bowl game.
Because of an overabundance of bowl games, three 5-7 teams — Nebraska, Minnesota and San Diego State — played in bowls last year.
As for Kelly, he'd rather but a bow on this season and start thinking about the next, but ultimately it's the Notre Dame administration that makes any postseason decisions, in the unlikely event a bowl opportunity would even present itself.
"I'm a football coach," Kelly said. "I'll do what they tell me to do but I'm not real supportive of a 5-7 football team in bowl games. … It doesn't fire me up much, but again, those aren't my decisions."
If there is one small positive to take away from this miserable season, Kelly said that a team loaded with first-year players can't help but learn some tough lessons to apply next season and beyond.
"There are a lot of inexperienced players that are going to benefit from this," explained Kelly, who has now gone more than a calendar year since winning back to back games. "It's going to help those guys that have gone through it. So we'll bank on that."
At this point, he's gotta bank on something.
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.