How No. 8 Notre Dame's quarterback shuffle will determine its playoff chances
Brian Kelly will play both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer against Texas in the opener
Brian Kelly has recruited well and won at a high clip (.705) since taking over at Notre Dame prior to the 2010 season. The Irish have never won fewer than eight games under his watch, and they've finished the season ranked in the top 25 three times, most recently as a top-15 team after going 10-3.
It's been a stable, successful early tenure for Kelly with one glaring exception being the quarterback position.
Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Dayne Crist, Everett Golson, Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer have all been competing for starter's snaps at one time or another in South Bend. It's been a job that has been up for grabs during most of Kelly's time as head coach, but that's not all his doing. Injuries and suspensions are to blame for some of the instability, but so it the practice of continuing a quarterback competition into the season or shuffling quarterbacks in and out based on game plan or game play. It's starting to become a thing for Kelly, who also used the Tony Pike-Zach Collaros combo during a 12-0 regular season run at Cincinnati.
Heading into 2016 we've got DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire competing for the job, and how Notre Dame manages the quarterback position will determine whether the Irish can become the first independent to crash the College Football Playoff.
Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford have been nothing but complimentary of the two quarterbacks. At Notre Dame's mid-August media availability, Kelly raved about how they combined for just two interceptions over 257 offensive reps. He called Kizer and Zaire two of the team's five best playmakers and promised that they would both see the field against Texas because he "couldn't put one of those guys on the sideline."
Knowing that both Kizer and Zaire will play against Texas takes some of the uncertainty out of the equation in terms of needing to know the starter and puts Brian Kelly back in the position of having to manage two quarterbacks that both badly want to be the No. 1 guy.
"Sometimes that's hard for an individual to understand, but they understand team comes first, and that's what's most important," Kelly said of the quarterbacks. "There's always going to be that struggle with the individual versus the team. They clearly understand that team is most important and winning and beating Texas is more important than how they feel about the current situation. But down deep, I'm sure they are probably not happy with sharing the position."
Sharing the position was not what either player had in mind and shared their feelings on the decision after Kelly's announcement. A few choice quotes, via Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton.
Zaire: "My whole goal is to turn chicken crap into chicken salad, we gotta make him right."
Kizer: "I would love for it to be me, but in this situation Coach Kelly makes the call."
An "Ohio State situation" Kelly was hoping to avoid
In looking at recent high-profile quarterback competitions, it's worth noting that Kelly can take some notes from Urban Meyer. In fact, it was only a few short months ago that Kelly mentioned the Buckeyes' situation with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett when telling Irish Illustrated that he would prefer not to juggle two quarterbacks in 2016.
"I worry about that, quite frankly. I saw what happened at Ohio State as the measuring stick. There was no real identity in that offense until they went with Barrett," Kelly said at the time, via Scout.
Kelly's current statements suggest no lack of confidence in the ability for Notre Dame to establish an identity on offense. He describes a system where the quarterbacks are as interchangeable as the running backs with the ability to move the ball on the ground -- Tarean Folston, Josh Adams leading the way -- being the groups greatest strength.
"The offense is seamless when one of them would come out of the game," Kelly said earlier this month.
"There's not a big change when one is in versus the other. There's play call differences, but that doesn't require much change at all. And then there are some situational down and distance and field position consideration that will go into that, as well. This is not a first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter, one guy plays the first and third and one guy plays the second and fourth."
Kelly has even hinted that they could be on the field at the same time, which combined with Notre Dame's running backs sounds like a mind-bender for any defensive coordinator.
The spotlight will be on in Austin
Sunday night football is programmed into the brains of Americans. No matter the opponents, fans always seem to find a spot in front of the television at the end of their weekend. On Sept. 4, the NFL will have wrapped up its preseason and the Sunday night football fix will come from Notre Dame's season opener against Texas in Austin.
The CFP Selection Committee uses conference championships as one of the factors taken into consideration when deciding the four-team field. Since Notre Dame has no conference title to win, its playoff resume will be impacted most by its performances in the biggest games. The stage will not be bigger, at least until December/January, than that Sunday night opener against Texas.
Kelly also knows, from experience, that game day is where the management of quarterbacks is put in the spotlight as well. Regardless of outcome, he'll be questioned on every substitution and decision regarding Zaire and Kizer. It's a tough task, but to hear Kelly tell it the situation is simply a matter of being sharp with your game plan.
"I think it's harder on game day more than anything else. I think quarterbacks want to be in a rhythm. Quarterbacks want to feel as though they won't get pulled out if they make a bad throw. They don't want to feel as though there's any pressure on them to try to force a throw to stay on the field, you know, and so I think that that's where it's more difficult," Kelly said. "And so that's where you have to be really good at what your plan is and how you're going to work both quarterbacks into the game, and the situations and the flow of the game."
Path to the playoff
Ultimately, Kelly's decision to use two quarterbacks in 206 could work out as well as it did at Cincinnati in 2009. Kizer is a killer in clutch situations, poised and coming off a 31 touchdowns season (21 passing, 10 rushing). Zaire was actually named the starter heading into 2015 before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury, is a more dynamic runner and his small sample size (MVP in the bowl game vs. LSU in 2014, winner as a starter against Texas in 2015) has all been great. There is a future that can be envisioned with both players contributing and Notre Dame winning.
Notre Dame has carried one of the 25 toughest schedules in the country in three of the last four years, per BCFToys.com, but the 2016 slate features a unique wrinkle that could help the team's playoff chances. Michigan State and Stanford are two of the most intimidating foes on the schedule this season, but both teams are breaking in new starting quarterbacks and both teams visit South Bend early in the season. If Notre Dame can get to 6-0 or 7-0 with Zaire and Kizer playing under center, we're looking at a title-contending two-quarterback rotation in November.
CBS Sports HQ Daily Newsletter
Get the best highlights and stories - yeah, just the good stuff handpicked by our team to start your day.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Sarkisian is in his second stint as Alabama's defensive coordinator
Vote in the first round of the Snacket and help decide the ultimate snack food
DaMarcus Fields, Joseph Wallace and Da'Leon Ward were suspended for unspecified reasons
Martell transferred from Ohio State in January
Gill comes to the Sun Belt as the successor to Karl Benson
There are four other potential college football rule changes that should make it out of co...