SOUTH BEND, Ind. — From the empty pregame parking lots to the socially distanced singing of the alma mater afterward, it was business as unusual at Notre Dame Saturday. But that’s going to be football life everywhere in America in 2020. The two uniquely jarring things about the Fighting Irish season opener were these:
• The “ACC” logos painted onto the field at each 25-yard line.
• The in-game announcement that Brian Kelly and the school have agreed to a contract extension through the 2024 season.
Here we had two things truly historic, as a pair of academically elite institutions persisted in playing—and playing the parts of football factories—in a basketball conference that continues its tilt toward the gridiron.
For the first time in its 133-year football history, Notre Dame played a conference football game. The Irish defeated Duke 27-13, and at 1-0 they have the best winning percentage of any Atlantic Coast Conference member in history. This short-term marriage of convenience is off to a workable start for both parties—the independent whose schedule was collapsing after canceled seasons elsewhere, and the league that needs more football oomph.
As for Kelly: he is now positioned to be the longest tenured coach in school history. If Kelly stays through the duration of his contract that will be 15 seasons under the Golden Dome—longer than Knute Rockne (13 years), longer than Frank Leahy (11), longer than Ara Parseghian (11), longer than Lou Holtz (11).
Unlike virtually every other football power, Notre Dame hasn’t had anyone who stayed multiple decades and became an institution. (Rockne comes closest, before his death in a plane crash in 1931.) This is a meat grinder of a job, and at times it appeared that Kelly was going to be one more presumptive savior consumed by the Notre Dame expectations.
But Kelly modified his approach, draining some of the anger out of his coaching style. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick stood by him through a 4-8 season. Now they remained joined at the hip—wait, make that six feet apart, masks on—for what could be the longest Irish ride ever.
“It seems appropriate that a coach who has been so willing to critically evaluate his approach to coaching and make changes when necessary is now positioned to become Notre Dame’s longest serving coach,” Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated Saturday. “The culture he has built in our football program is a great reflection on the university. Brian is a great coach who fits Notre Dame very well.”
Kelly earned his extension with one call Saturday, a fake punt in the second quarter of a game that was going quite poorly to that point for Notre Dame. Trailing 3-0 and lucky it wasn’t worse, an Irish team that had accumulated one first down and 22 total yards was facing a fourth-and-8 from its own 21-yard line.
Kelly dialed up the fake, and punter Jay Bramlett ran around left end for 14 yards. Five plays later, Notre Dame scored and took the lead for good. That took some gumption.
Asked his thoughts before the play, Kelly said, “I hope the heck it works. That was my thought process. It was there. We saw it on film. … We needed a little bit of momentum.”
Momentum provided, Notre Dame proved itself the superior team in a rather unspectacular manner. Duke coach David Cutcliffe gave the Irish a lot of unfamiliar looks on both sides of the ball, breaking in Clemson transfer Chase Brice at quarterback and cramming the box with defenders. It took a while for Notre Dame to adjust and assert its talent advantage.
Did this look like a team capable of challenging Clemson in the ACC? Not really. But it’s one game into the season after the most ridiculous off-season in history, so judging anything off of this is pretty useless. Being 1-0 in the only thing that really matters.
Asked about his team’s slow start, Kelly showed some trademark edginess: “If (the reporter who asked the question) was expecting we were going to come out like a shiny new car, he’s been reading the wrong internet chatter. … We had to be patient. We looked like the team we should have in the second half.”
Credit Notre Dame for actually conjuring up some homefield advantage, in a season where that might be rare. The announced attendance was 10,097, and the school’s media relations department said that 90% of the crowd were students. (We’d all like to see the math on that equation.) Youthful fan enthusiasm, combined with the band, actually made the place more lively than anyone expected.
“I was blown away,” Kelly said. “I was expecting it to be like an intrasquad scrimmage. That was great environment. Our guys were overjoyed in the sense that it felt like a football game.”
Depending what happens with the Big Ten—as of Saturday, that league’s attempts to resuscitate a fall season are stronger than ever—two teams from one Power-5 conference stand a chance to make the four-team College Football Playoff. While overall strength would likely favor the Southeastern Conference, the ACC could have power at the top that gives it multiple candidates in the non-Clemson category.
Notre Dame and North Carolina are the two teams best positioned to be second playoff candidates (although Louisville and Miami cannot be disregarded). In terms of experience, the Irish are at the flush end of the spectrum in several key categories, most notably quarterback and offensive line. The depth chart the Irish put out pregame features 10 out of 11 offensive starters who are listed as juniors, seniors or graduate students, and on defense the number was nine of 11.
For years, Notre Dame has been criticized for its independent status, despite the fact that every program would trade places if it could pull it off. This season, the school had to swallow its considerable pride and sign up with the league it has been part of for several years in other sports. That could include playing a first-ever conference championship game, and it could include playing Clemson twice. (The regular-season matchup is Nov. 7 in South Bend, when weather could benefit the Irish.)
Membership could have its privileges. It is, in the end, good for Notre Dame to acknowledge that it needs somebody else in its football universe. League membership and the possibility of a 15-year head coach—nobody saw either of those things coming in South Bend.