The last three seasons of college football should give Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly the blueprint he needs to get the program over the final hump.
Kelly has done a wonderful job turning Notre Dame into a mediocre on the field program into one that has made the College Football Playoff in two of the last three seasons. Notre Dame is on the cusp of regaining its championship glory, but there are still areas holding the program back.
The biggest is the offense, which is still light years behind the teams that are competing for and winning championships. There are areas where the offense must catch up from a talent standpoint, but the greatest issue is the philosophy that Kelly has implemented within the program. Kelly is trying to win with great defense, running the ball and controlling the clock.
Some will read that and say, “Well, yeah, that’s how you win championships!”
There was certainly a time for that, and perhaps that time will come back in the future, but right now it is clear that playing that kind of ball will allow Notre Dame to beat the teams with inferior talent, which is why the program has gone 43-8 the last four seasons. Just as obvious, however, is the reality that the philosophy employed by Kelly is also keeping it from being competitive when its on the biggest stage.
For years Coach Kelly has been chasing Alabama, rightfully so, as the Crimson Tide are the gold standard in college football right now. The issue, however, is that Kelly is trying to chase the 2012 version of Alabama that beat the Irish in the national title game. Alabama has evolved from that offense, and winning championships now requires an explosive offense.
A popular expression for years is “Defense wins championships.” I like to use a new slogan, and that is that defense will get you to the dance, but its offense that will now win you a title.
Okay, fine, you don’t believe me? Listen to Alabama head Nick Saban talk about this very issue.
“The game is different now, people score fast,” Saban said in a recent interview. “I grew up with the idea that you play good defense, you run the ball, you control vertical field position on special teams and you’re going to win. Whoever rushes the ball the most for the most yards is going to win the game
“You aren’t going to win anything now doing that,” continued Saban. “Because A, the way the spread is, the way the rules are, to run RPOs. The way the rules are that you can block down field and throw the ball behind the line of scrimmage, I mean those rules have changed college football. No huddle fastball has changed college football.
“I changed my philosophy about five or six years ago … We said we have to outscore em.”
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, all the areas of offensive football that have brought about the surge on that side of the ball, and the aspects that have fueled recent title runs by Clemson, LSU and now Alabama are things that are missing almost entirely from the Notre Dame offense.
Don’t believe me or Coach Saban? Okay, how about some of these numbers.
Points per game for the 14 winners of the College Football Playoff semi-final games:
Points per game for the 7 winners of the College Football Playoff title games:
Alabama’s evolution the last three seasons has been impressive. Saban recognized the trend, and he did so in many defeats. His Crimson Tide defense gave up 45 points in a Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma following the 2013 season, and the Alabama 2014 season ended after it gave up 42 points to an explosive Ohio State team that won the national championship thanks to an offense that averaged 44.8 points per game.
In 2016, Alabama lost the title game to Clemson by giving up 35 points and 420 passing yards.
Saban saw what was coming, and he instructed Mike Locksley - and then Steve Sarkisian - to fully implement the change. There was an immediate huge boost in offensive production. Just look at the numbers?
Alabama won its first national title under Saban in 2009, and they did it with defense. The Crimson Tide held opponents to just 8.2 points per game in 2011, and just 10.9 in 2012. In fact, Alabama’s worst defense from a points per game standpoint was its 2020 defense, which gave up 19.4 points per game. Its second worst points per game defense was the 2019 unit.
You know what also happened in 2019 and 2020? Alabama had its highest point differential of the Saban era.
Notre Dame’s 2018-20 defenses gave up 18.6 points per game. But the Irish haven’t sniffed winning a title because the offense lags woefully behind the teams winning titles. Here’s the average offensive production from the last three seasons compared to the teams that win titles.
Notre Dame's defense certainly has room to get better, but the Irish defense has been playing well enough for the Irish to compete for championships. Where Notre Dame is lagging behind is clearly on offense.
Kelly needs to overhaul the offense, change the philosophy and bring the offense into the modern era. He can do that partly by going back to his roots, something I wrote about recently. But however it happens, Notre Dame must learn to push the tempo, attack the perimeter more effectively, improve its quarterback play and become a far more aggressive and explosive offense.
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