On Dec. 20, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee released its final rankings of the season, showing that No. 1 Alabama would be taking on No. 4 Notre Dame in the first semifinal, followed by No. 2 Clemson vs No. 3 Ohio State.
Almost immediately, reactions from fans across the country rang out regarding the Crimson Tide’s matchup against the Fighting Irish. Fans from both sides reeled upon remembering the last time the two teams faced in a championship atmosphere, a game that saw Alabama demolish Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2013 BCS title game.
Fast forward to 2020, and the outlook for the game is very much the same. When the gambling lines opened, the Crimson Tide immediately became a 17.5-point favorite. As of Sunday, Alabama has risen to a 20-point favorite.
On Monday morning, coaches and players from Notre Dame took to Zoom in a virtual press conference heading into their matchup against Alabama in this coming Friday’s Rose Bowl Game in Dallas. While many were asked about the last time the Fighting Irish faced Alabama, offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg’s answer was probably most revealing of his team’s attitude.
“In past years I'm pretty sure Alabama got blown out by Clemson,” 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. We're taking it one game at a time. I personally don't care about the past, if I'm being honest with you. I'm just focused on this week and preparing the best we can to attack this opponent.”
While Eichenberg is right that this is a different team and a different year, the Vegas odds seem to certainly not care much.
Odds obviously don’t decide who wins and who loses football games, but they usually paint a pretty accurate picture of how a game is expected to go. While upsets certainly happen, the odds are, more often than not, correct.
According to Fighting Irish wide receiver Ben Skowronek, his team is playing with a chip on its shoulder and is completely ignoring the spread despite knowing that the odds are stacked against them.
“Obviously we're going to have motivation, having a chip on our shoulder and all that,” Skowronek said. “But games like these, where people are talking about it, you turn on the TV, see all these promos, commercials, people talking about it. We tune all that out. I couldn't tell what you the narrative is around this game. I know we're the underdog, obviously -- they're the No. 1 seed; we're No. 4 seed. But it's up to us to go out there and compete, compete every single play and go out there and get the win.
“We're not worried about the spread. We're not worried about all that, I couldn't tell you what it all means. But we're excited to play in the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff and compete every single play.”
Since that 2013 BCS title game, Notre Dame has only made one playoff appearance, that being the 2019 Cotton Bowl against Clemson. The outcome of that game did not vary much differently from the Fighting Irish’s most-recent game against the Tigers, with Clemson handily defeating Notre Dame 30-3.
The loss against Alabama in 2013 and then against Clemson in 2019 has painted a narrative surrounding current head coach Brian Kelly and his team at Notre Dame. The program has routinely shown that it has what it takes to win in the regular season, but just as regularly falls short in the games that matter.
According to Kelly, his team’s shortcomings in the past does not reflect the success that Notre Dame football has had.
“We’re knocking on the door every year playing really good teams and great opponents,” Kelly said. “And there's elite football teams. I don't know why this narrative continues to pop up when we're always in the games. No, we haven't won a National Championship, 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.
“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.”
Aside from Kelly, there is one other person who was a member of the 2012 Notre Dame team that lost to Alabama in the national championship game. While Tommy Rees is now the team’s offensive coordinator, he served as a quarterback for the 2012 team who played in 11 games that season.
According to Rees, he doesn’t remember that night fondly but says that this 2020 Notre Dame team is a completely different team.
“That was a long time ago for us,” Rees said. “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.
“And that's really the standard and the work ethic that we come into this building with every day. And I think Coach has built that consistency here over the last 11 years. And it's been really exciting just to see this place grow into where it's at now.”
Despite being the largest playoff underdogs in recent memory, Notre Dame is going to give Alabama its best shot. The Fighting Irish are clearly not focused on mistakes of the past and are instead focused on the task at hand that is directly in front of them.
According to Kelly, he and his program are still after the same goal that they were back in 2013: to graduate players as national champions.
“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, 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.
“We’re a different organization. We're a different program. We stand for the same things. Our mission is still the same, to graduate champions. But the way we go about things on a day-to-day basis, you know, how we develop our players, who we're looking for in the recruiting process, they have to still fit Notre Dame and what we stand for.”