CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The most unfortunate part of Clemson demolishing Notre Dame here Saturday is that we don’t get to see whether Brian Kelly was going to stand by his threat to boycott the Rose Bowl. The Fighting Irish will be no better than a College Football Playoff No. 4 seed on Selection Sunday, which would ticket them to the Sugar Bowl against the No. 1 seed. If they make the playoff at all.
After being trucked 34–10, Notre Dame’s CFP fate rests in the hands of the selection committee. A comfortable position now gives way to an anxious Selection Sunday. The Irish gave the committee a stink bomb of a last impression to ponder, a blowout loss that brought 8–1 Texas A&M into the picture as competition for the fourth and final spot.
Kelly did his duty as a lobbyist postgame, trying to sound unconcerned while listing Notre Dame’s playoff talking points.
“No doubt, this football team is one of the best four in the country,” Kelly said. “We’ll leave the rest of it up to the committee.
"We played 11 games. That matters. Testing your team week in and week out, no question that puts us as one of the top four teams in the country. … When you play 11 games and have a win over the No. 1 team in the country and beat an outstanding North Carolina team, I don’t know if you need to look any further than that."
The full body of work has some advantages over the Aggies: 10–1 vs. 8–1; a pair of wins over CFP top 15 teams (Clemson and North Carolina) vs. one A&M win (Florida); four victories over teams with winning records vs. two; a (barely) better margin of defeat in their one loss, 24 points vs. 28. But the Irish also threw up on the biggest stage of the season Saturday, leaving the committee with some pretty uninspiring options.
It was bad.
Bad enough to resurrect the label that has dogged Notre Dame for decades—that there is a chasm between that fabled program and the game’s elite. Kelly is absolutely the program’s best coach since Lou Holtz, and among the best in Irish history. But he’s got this on the body of work in big postseason games: a 42–14 loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS championship game; a 44–28 loss to Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl; a 30–3 loss to Clemson in the 2018 CFP semifinals; and now this.
The Irish thought they put that narrative to bed by beating then-No. 1 Clemson in a thriller last month, but it has bounced out of bed and back to the forefront now. The Tigers at full strength are much better than the Tigers that went to South Bend without the services of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and several key defensive players—and much better than Notre Dame. “There was no trophy handed out (Nov. 7),” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday night. “That happens in Charlotte.”
After treating Notre Dame the way it treated Virginia, Pittsburgh, Miami, Virginia Tech and North Carolina in previous ACC title games, Swinney hoisted that trophy for the sixth straight season.
In this game, the Irish once again looked too slow to play with the big boys: Clemson scored touchdowns on plays of 67, 33, 24 and 34 yards. Notre Dame didn’t have a play longer than 30 yards all game.
The Irish were also whipped in the trenches. Their celebrated offensive line couldn’t protect quarterback Ian Book, giving up six sacks, and the Irish defense was gouged for 291 rushing yards and 8.1 yards per carry. “Our ability to win the trenches … was probably the most special part of the night,” Swinney said.
And, much like in Clemson’s 30–3 win over the Irish in the 2018 playoff, Book once again couldn’t come close to matching the ability of Lawrence. Nobody can, really, but the difference between the two was again glaring Saturday. While Lawrence was passing and running for 412 yards and three touchdowns, Book was harassed into a 184-yard total offense performance. That was nearly 200 fewer yards than Book produced in the double-overtime win over Clemson in November.
Despite the extent of this mismatch, Swinney was a good conference party man postgame. He went to bat for the ACC interloper Irish as emphatically as Kelly did.
“Absolutely, Notre Dame deserves to be in, because they’re dad-gum 10–1” Swinney said. “They lost to Clemson. They stepped in the ring with us twice, won one and lost one. Absolutely they deserve to be in, no doubt about that. They played 11 games. I would not punish people for playing more games."
Swinney also got some lobbying in on behalf of Lawrence for the Heisman Trophy. He’s one of the greats in college football history, but before Saturday Lawrence seemed to be outside the top candidates for the award. Missing two games didn’t help, especially when one of them was the first game against Notre Dame . But this performance reminded anyone who might have forgotten how good he is.
“It’s so obvious who the best player in the country is,” Swinney said. “I hate to even have to campaign for him.”
It’s campaign season in college football—for the Heisman, yes, but more immediately for the playoff. Clemson didn’t have to politick for the latter Saturday night, but Notre Dame did. The one thing the Irish could not afford happened—a blowout defeat that cast a shadow of doubt across a previously stellar season.