Shortly before Notre Dame played Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal in 2018, coach Brian Kelly complained that the Fighting Irish were being unfairly judged for what had happened six years earlier.
“We’re still being compared to what happened in 2012, fair or unfair,” Kelly said at the time, referring to Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship played after the 2012 season. “We need to set a new kind of parameter there.”
The Fighting Irish promptly lost to the Tigers 30-3 in their first CFP appearance.
After that game, Kelly told anyone who would listen that the Irish had closed the gap on the sport’s heavyweights more than the one-point improvement that the scores would indicate.
“Do I feel like it’s different than that [Alabama] game? Oh, I do. Absolutely,” Kelly said afterward. “I left that game feeling there was so much work to be done from the inside out, so much development, so much recruiting.
“[Clemson was] the better team today — there’s no doubt about it. [But] this is a totally different feeling. I feel like this football team is on the brink [of a championship], where when I left that [Alabama] game, it was, ‘Boy, do we have a lot of work to do.’ … We can come back here and win. So it’s a different, real different, feeling for me.”
It has been eight years since the Crimson Tide steamrolled the No. 1 Fighting Irish — yes, Notre Dame was unbeaten and ranked ahead of Alabama — by scoring the game’s first 35 points and piling up 529 yards of offense to win their third BCS title in four seasons.
On New Year’s Day, the No. 1 Tide and No. 4 Irish will meet in the CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). And while both programs and their head coaches have evolved since that forgettable night for the Fighting Irish in South Florida, some things have remained the same.
Nobody is giving Notre Dame much of a chance.
Alabama opened as a 20.5-point favorite, the largest ever in a CFP semifinal or national championship. ESPN’s FPI gives the Tide an 81% chance of winning the game.
Given its recent postseason history, does Notre Dame have more to prove than the other teams in the CFP?
“No, I mean, we’re knocking on the door every year, playing really good teams and great opponents,” Kelly said this week. “And there’s elite football teams. I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the games.”
Under Kelly, the Fighting Irish are enjoying their most successful era in more than three decades, since Lou Holtz guided them to the 1988 national championship and nine consecutive January bowl games from 1987 to 1995.
After a 4-8 blip in 2016, the Fighting Irish have won 41 regular-season games over the past four seasons, the most in a four-year stretch in school history. They are one of only five teams to make CFP appearances in multiple seasons; Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma are the others. Since the start of the 2018 season, Notre Dame has a 33-4 record. It has won 24 consecutive games at Notre Dame Stadium since Sept. 30, 2017, the longest home winning streak in the program’s modern era.
This season, while playing in a conference for the time in its 114-year history because of scheduling issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, Notre Dame went 10-0 in the regular season while competing in the ACC. The Irish upset then-No. 1 Clemson 47-40 in two overtimes (albeit with Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence sidelined because of COVID-19) and reached the ACC championship game, losing a rematch to the Tigers 34-10.
The Fighting Irish did enough to reach the CFP and will play in the Rose Bowl for the first time since the Four Horsemen galloped past Stanford 27-10 on New Year’s Day in 1925 to win the school’s first consensus national championship.
Yet despite all that success, Friday’s Rose Bowl feels like Lucy and Charlie Brown to almost everyone residing outside the shadow of the Golden Dome.
“I understand we’re going to get that narrative, but it can be a little frustrating,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said.
That perception, fair or not, has followed the Irish because of how they have performed on the sport’s biggest stage during the past two decades. This will be Notre Dame’s seventh appearance in a BCS or New Year’s Six bowl game since 1998. The Irish were 0-6 in the previous games and outscored by a total of 144 points, with none of the contests decided by less than two touchdowns.
“Look, the history of playing those teams in those games obviously plays a factor,” said former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. “It’s hard to get by that.”
Swarbrick said Notre Dame’s independence — this will be its only season playing in the ACC — is the primary reason it has received more flak than other teams that have flopped in the postseason.
“No matter what we do in the regular season, it’s always going to give people a basis for saying, ‘Well, we should have been in [the playoff] instead of them,'” Swarbrick said. “We can’t be in it, whether it was the BCS and now the CFP, without somebody’s conference champion not getting in. That independent dynamic will always put a certain target on our backs in the postseason.”
Still, it’s not like Notre Dame is the only team that has taken it on the chin in the CFP semifinals. Defending national champion Florida State lost to Oregon by 39 points in a CFP semifinal in January 2015. In other CFP semifinals, Alabama beat Michigan State by 38, Washington by 17 and even Clemson by 18. Oklahoma is 0-4 in its CFP appearances, losing by an average of 18 points.
Even Alabama and Clemson, the two most dominant teams in the CFP era, have been on the wrong end of beatdowns. The Tigers defeated the Crimson Tide by 28 points in the 2019 CFP National Championship; Clemson lost to LSU by 17 in the title game last season.
Of the 12 CFP semifinals that have been played, only three teams have won by fewer than 10 points and eight have won by 17 points or more. The average margin of victory was 21.3 points in those games.
“In past years, I’m pretty sure Alabama got blown out by Clemson,” Notre Dame offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg said. “I’m pretty sure other teams have been blown out as well in the playoffs. I’m not specifically concerned about that. This is a different year. This is a different team.”
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, it might not be able to show how far it has come in the past eight years against this Alabama team, which is averaging 49.7 points and 544 yards per game. Quarterback Mac Jones and receiver DeVonta Smith are Heisman Trophy finalists. The Associated Press named six Alabama players to its All-America team; the Irish had two players selected — guard Aaron Banks and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
Notre Dame might be a much better team and still just not as good as Alabama.
The Irish insist that what happened eight years ago won’t have any bearing on what happens on New Year’s Day.
“That was a long time ago for us,” said offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, who was a backup quarterback for the Irish in 2012. “And I was there. I remember it. And it wasn’t a fun night, obviously. I think the program’s come a long way under Coach’s leadership. I think the way we’ve recruited, the way we developed within our program has increased.
“And then I think just we’ve been in this situation now multiple times and there’s a belief within the program that we’re consistently one of the best five teams in the country, and we handle ourselves that way and we have that belief.”
After the 28-point loss to Alabama in 2012, Kelly rebuilt his program to improve recruiting, strength and conditioning, nutrition and his on-field staff.
“Look, if you’re not getting better every year in everything in life, you’re getting left behind,” Kelly said. “So you need to look internally at what you’re doing. Even after going undefeated that year [in 2012], we lost in the national championship game, and we were looked at as not a very good football team. We needed to look at the things that could help us grow. And we’ve been doing that each and every year.
“So are we a different football team? We’re a different program. We have to be. You have to change and you have to be able to stay up with the current trends and things that are occurring every single day. We all do, right? Whatever business we’re in.”
Kelly, 59, also took on a softer, gentler demeanor on the sideline. He delegated more responsibility to his coaches, including Rees, who was the target of some of Kelly’s sideline outbursts when he played quarterback for the Irish from 2010 to 2013. Kelly promoted Rees, 28, to playcaller when Chip Long was let go after three seasons in January 2020.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I am,” Swarbrick said. “Forget just the coaching community. It’s anybody, any leader, any businessperson, who is really willing to reexamine everything about the way he operates a business and engage in substantive changes and how he reacts personally, I just think that’s the most impressive thing. I was so fascinated by it when we were going through it, and then to see the results of it has been really rewarding. I just don’t think there are a lot of people who can do it, who can really make fundamental changes in the way they approach something they’ve done for a quarter-century.”
When defensive coordinator Mike Elko left for Texas A&M after the 2017 season, Kelly promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea. The Irish rank 14th in scoring defense (18.6 points), 15th in run defense (110.6 yards) and 20th in total defense (335.1 yards) among FBS teams. That performance helped Lea recently land a head-coaching job at Vanderbilt, his alma mater.
Recruiting has been one of the areas that have greatly evolved over the past eight years. The Irish have put more emphasis on the offensive and defensive lines, and on building depth. That was one of the revelations from the loss to Alabama in 2012. Of the 22 players who started for the Tide in that game, 16 played in at least one NFL game. The Irish had nearly as many with 15 players (offensive tackle Christian Lombard, another potential NFL player, was forced to retire from football as a senior in 2014 because of a back injury).
The difference was that Alabama had players such as future NFL running backs T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, linebacker Reggie Ragland, safety Landon Collins and offensive lineman Ryan Kelly playing as reserves.
“The depth was the difference,” Swarbrick said. “Our starting defensive linemen were [Stephon] Tuitt, [Louis] Nix and [Kapron] Lewis-Moore. But we didn’t have the next three and the next three that Alabama would roll out.”
Notre Dame has excelled in recruiting and developing offensive linemen. In 2018, guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey were top-10 picks in the NFL draft. Eichenberg is the sixth-best tackle available for next year’s draft, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., and Banks is the fifth-best guard.
“I think Notre Dame has been able to realize that they’re putting out some of the best offensive linemen in the NFL,” Quinn said. “There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to recruit at the highest level for those guys, and they’ve done that. If you’re a running back in high school, why the hell wouldn’t you want to come to Notre Dame and play behind those offensive lines?”
In April, Alabama had nine players selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, including four first-rounders. The Irish had three players picked in the first three rounds — none in the first. Kiper projects that four Alabama players will be chosen in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, and Najee Harris is the No. 1 tailback and another potential first-rounder. He has one Notre Dame player — Owusu-Koramoah — projected among the first 32 picks.
It seems for every step Notre Dame takes forward, Alabama takes another leap.
“No, we haven’t won a national championship, that’s correct,” Kelly said. “I’m not changing the record. But we are there every single year and we’re grinding it out just like everybody else. And only one team gets to celebrate at the end of the year. And we’re going to keep banging it and we’re going to keep getting back here. And that’s our job. And that’s our challenge each and every year is to compete for a national championship, and we’ll continue to do that.”