Over the last five weeks I would argue Notre Dame has played like one of the four best teams in college football, and the way the Irish finished the season I wouldn't bet against them doing damage should they reach the College Football Playoff. But the reality is the Irish likely lack the playoff resume to get in.
What is the most disappointing is that this team absolutely should have been a playoff team based on its own talent and the fact it played a schedule that outside of one game wasn't nearly as difficult as many thought it would be.
For much of the season we were bombarded with the ridiculous notion that this was former head coach Brian Kelly's best coaching job during his tenure at Notre Dame. Kelly began the spin during the preseason when he tried to convince the world that a team that started a sixth-year senior, six fifth-year seniors, five seniors, seven juniors and just two sophomores and a freshman was "young."
Oh, and one of those sophomores was Michael Mayer, one of Notre Dame's three best players and arguably the best tight end in the country.
Many bought it, and throughout the month of November we had to listen to talk about the great coaching job Kelly did, when in fact the opposite was true. It's not that Kelly did a bad job, he didn't. You don't go 11-1 if your coach does a bad job, but the reality wasn't that this was a young team, the reality was this is a very talented team with talented young assistant coaches leading the way, that did not face a single opponent that could match it from a talent standpoint.
It wasn't Kelly's brilliant coaching that had Notre Dame in playoff contention as much as it was his "big game problem" that will likely keep the Irish out.
Notre Dame finished the season 11-1 against a schedule that many, wrongly, assumed was loaded with tough opponents. Turns out the Irish schedule had one really good team on it and a lot of mediocre opponents. That means Notre Dame simply needed to win one "big game" all season and it would have punched its College Football Playoff ticket.
That game came on Oct. 2 when Notre Dame hosted then 7th-ranked Cincinnati. The Bearcats played with a fire that Notre Dame lacked in the game and dominated from start to finish, a theme from most of Kelly's matchups against Top 10 opponents. Despite the defense putting forth a valiant effort, the Irish fell behind 17-0 at halftime and fell by a 24-13 score.
It was Notre Dame's only opportunity for a win over an opponent that is currently ranked and it was yet another in a long line of Kelly losses against Top 10 opponents. During his 12 seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly finished with a record of just 4-11 against opponents that ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the game, including going just 2-5 during the "turnaround" seasons from 2017-21.
Two of those Top 10 wins were against opponents that finished unranked (Michigan State, 2012 - Stanford, 2018). Another came against a Clemson team that was playing without its All-American quarterback and three of its best starters on defense (2020).
Of course, when the Tigers were healthy in December they pounded Notre Dame 34-10 in the ACC title game.
Two of those Top 10 wins came in 2012, when the Irish beat the aforementioned Spartan team and also beat then No. 8 Oklahoma on the road. The Irish won just two games over Top 10 opponents in the next nine seasons. Its inability to beat Cincinnati on its home field this season was yet another "big game" failure.
Without that win over Cincinnati, Notre Dame's resume simply doesn't stack up against Georgia, Alabama, Michigan and the Bearcats. Each of those teams have at least one win over a Top 25 opponent. The Bulldogs, Crimson Tide and Michigan all have at least two.
Notre Dame has none.
Notre Dame's best wins came against 8-4 Wisconsin and Purdue, two teams currently unranked. It's next best win came against 7-5 Toledo. After that the Irish beat three 6-6 opponents and five opponents that finished below .500, including three opponents that won just three games all season.
It has to be disappointing for the Irish players, who are talented and much better than their former head coach ever game them credit for. Perhaps if he would have embraced his teams talent, not viewed this season as a rebuild and had more faith in his team - instead of using the rebuild spin to build up his own profile in hopes of a bigger payday (which he got from LSU), the Irish might have been more ready to play against Cincinnati.
That would have been something, because I would love to see this hot Notre Dame get a shot against anyone else that will lineup in the playoff.
Irish Breakdown Content
Become a premium Irish Breakdown member, which grants you access to all of our premium content and our premium message board! Click on the link below for more.
Be sure to stay locked into Irish Breakdown all the time!
Join the Irish Breakdown community!
Subscribe to the Irish Breakdown YouTube channel
Subscribe to the Irish Breakdown podcast on iTunes
Follow me on Twitter: @CoachD178
Like and follow Irish Breakdown on Facebook