Skip to main content

Brian Kelly sounded a bit perplexed and a tad peeved Monday when The Topic arose yet again. The question for the Notre Dame football coach began with the phrase, “Do you guys have something to prove …"

Kelly has tried to bury The Topic for years now—the question of his program’s performance in big games against elite opponents. He thought he had it in the grave in November, when Notre Dame beat Clemson in dramatic double overtime. The No. 1 team was beaten, the field was stormed, The Topic was dead that night, right?

No. The Atlantic Coast Conference championship game rematch was an orange shovel to a leprechaun’s face: Tigers 34, Fighting Irish 10. Turns out Clemson with Trevor Lawrence and a full-strength defense is a bit different than the team Notre Dame beat in South Bend. “There was no trophy handed out (Nov. 7),” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, rubbing a little salt in the fresh Irish wound.

And with that, here came The Topic yet again, unburied and undead, rising up out of the grave like a ghost that haunts the Golden Dome.

“I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the games,” Kelly said Monday. And to be clear, “narrative” equates to “false premise” in the current popular discourse.

“No, we haven’t won a national championship,” Kelly continued. “That’s correct. 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.”


Kelly has a point, but not one so indisputable that it can lay The Topic to rest for all eternity—or even the rest of his highly successful tenure. The only thing capable of doing that is to win a College Football Playoff game, and the Irish get their next shot to do that Friday against Alabama in the Transplanted Texas Rose Bowl. It could well be ugly, like so many of these types of games have been over the years for Notre Dame.

The No. 1 Crimson Tide are a whopping 20-point favorite, easily the largest point spread in the seven-year history of the playoff. If the Irish underperform Las Vegas’s outlook by the same amount as their other recent big-game pratfalls, this game could be unsuitable for younger viewers.

Against Clemson on Dec. 19, Notre Dame was a 10 1/2-point underdog and lost by 24. Against Clemson in the 2018 CFP, Notre Dame was a 12 1/2-point underdog and lost by 27. Against Ohio State in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame was a 6 1/2-point underdog and lost by 16. And against Alabama in the 2012 BCS Championship Game, Notre Dame was a 10-point underdog and lost by 28.

The Irish are losing those games by an average of almost two touchdowns more than the Vegas spread predicted. If that pattern holds, it would mean roughly a 34-point beatdown in JerryWorld. And boy would that send The Topic howling like a banshee around college football.

Now, here’s where Kelly has a point—his program absolutely is one of the best of the Playoff Era. Notre Dame is one of just five to make multiple CFP appearances: Alabama and Clemson have made the football Final Four six times apiece; Oklahoma and Ohio State four times; and the Irish twice. And if you crunch the numbers on the final CFP selection committee rankings over seven years, it further validates Kelly’s program.

Flawed as those Top 25s tend to be, those are the only rankings that really matter in the sport. Here is how they break down: Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are far ahead of the rest of the field, in that order; then there is a gap to Oklahoma; then another gap to Georgia and Notre Dame; and then yet another gap to everyone else. That next wave starts with Penn State, Florida, LSU, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Oregon, Florida State, Washington, Auburn, USC and Stanford.

SI Recommends

LSU and Oregon are the only schools in that next tier that have done something Notre Dame has not—namely, win at least one playoff game. And every school in that tier has had enough fluctuation to keep it from consistent playoff contention.

The Irish in the Playoff Era did have a 4–8 bust in 2016. But on either side of that are five seasons of double-digit victories and three or fewer defeats. So Kelly is correct in saying that his team is consistently in the national championship mix.

The only problem is that Notre Dame also is consistently beaten to a pulp once it gets in said mix. The Irish are just good enough to get into company that is way better than they are. Laying another egg Friday would keep The Topic very much alive going forward.

So, how do the Irish avoid being blown out again? The most important thing will be controlling the ball and keeping Alabama’s lethal offense off the field for as much of the game as possible. And controlling the ball generally means running the ball.

The problem there is that nobody has run with notable success against Alabama since mid-October. Mississippi and Georgia each averaged 4.7 yards or more per carry on consecutive weeks against the Tide, Oct. 10 and 17, and since then no opponent has done better than 3.66 yards per carry.

Notre Dame could have the offensive balance to break that trend. Florida didn’t try much to run it in the Southeastern Conference title game, mostly because the Gators were having too much success through the air to bother with the ground game. The Irish don’t have the wideout weapons Florida possesses, so becoming one-dimensional—and playing a fast-paced game—is decidedly not to their advantage.

“We’re not running the Princeton four-corners offense, but we are trying to run our offense, which has been one that has traditionally been a ball-control offense,” Kelly said. “We cannot come into this game and change who we are, but the nice part about it is that’s kind of been our DNA this year. … We can’t be three-and-out. We want to hold onto the football.”

Which means avoiding negative plays that knock the Irish offense off schedule. Clemson tagged Notre Dame with 10 tackles for loss, including six sacks of quarterback Ian Book, which helped ruin the offensive game plan. The celebrated Irish offensive line has to protect Book better than that this Saturday.

Defensively, Notre Dame is very good—but it did give up a flurry of big plays to the Tigers, and now it faces one of the most explosive offenses in the country. Coordinator Clark Lea is on his way to becoming the head coach at Vanderbilt, which is a complication. It’s hard to effectively multitask two full-time jobs.

Lane Kiffin was so bad at it that Nick Saban fired him between the 2016 CFP semis and final, sending Kiffin on his way to Florida Atlantic. Former Miami and Georgia coach Mark Richt was in a similar situation many years ago, transitioning from Florida State offensive coordinator to head coach at Georgia. He stuck with the OC job long enough to call plays in the BCS championship game against Oklahoma, and his offense didn’t score a point.

“I bit off more than I could chew, to be honest with you,” Richt said. “It was not a very good experience. As I was going through it, I felt like I was doing as good of a job as I could possibly do. I didn't feel like I was cheating Florida State. But in the end, the end result was we didn't score an offensive point that day. … It’s very, very difficult to do. Every time that Georgia phone rang it was some kind of issue I was trying to figure out how to solve, while still trying to be a coach at Florida State.”

Lea’s first game in that tricky situation, his unit gave up 34 points to Clemson—a season-high in regulation. Now he faces a team averaging 50 per game.

Notre Dame isn’t in this for moral victories, but simply avoiding a blowout will give the program a chance to shove The Topic back out of mind. If an expected three-touchdown defeat turns into anything worse than that, that ghost will continue to wander the campus in South Bend for the foreseeable future.