Notre Dame is no longer a former great program wandering in the desert, relegated to mediocrity. That is where Notre Dame was for all but a few seasons from 1994 to 2016. Over the last four seasons, however, Notre Dame has won at least 10 games in each season, has two playoff berths and two Top 5 finishes.
Notre Dame has gone from being a decent program to one on the cusp of getting back to being a premier program on the field. That is where head coach Brian Kelly has brought the Notre Dame program.
In the 16 years prior to Kelly's arrival, Notre Dame went 114-79-1 and had 10+ wins just twice. In Kelly's first six seasons the Fighting Irish went 59-31 and had just two 10+ win seasons.
Following the 4-8 campaign of 2016 the program underwent an overhaul, and the results have been impressive. Notre Dame has gone 43-8 in the four seasons, and the Irish are now in the discussion for being one of the best tier two programs in the country. Being in that conversation means the Irish aren't far away from taking that final leap.
Notre Dame's recent success has certainly been enjoyable, but the fact is it has been built largely on beating up inferior programs. That's nothing to sniff at, as Notre Dame had a long history of losing to inferior opponents from 1994 to 2016. Saying Notre Dame is beating the teams they're supposed to beat isn't an insult, and while it's what should be expected from the head coach at Notre Dame, it hadn't been true for over two decades until Kelly got the program back on track.
If Notre Dame wants to take that leap it needs to learn how to beat the big boys of college football. That would be Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. For Notre Dame to take the final step the program must start gearing everything it is doing to building the program in a way that beats those programs.
Notre Dame has six 10+ win seasons under Kelly, and the Irish are 51-0 against opponents that finished unranked in those seasons. That includes 33-0 over the last four seasons. During those seasons the Irish are just 14-12 against opponents that finished ranked, which includes a 10-8 record against ranked opponents from 2017-20. Notre Dame is just 2-9 against opponents that finished ranked in the Top 10 in those six seasons, and they are just 1-5 against Top 10 opponents in the last four seasons.
That is what separates the current program from what we saw from Notre Dame during its last golden era (1988-1993).
Kelly talked about how the program has done incredibly well against everyone except the "big boys" of college football. Notre Dame is just 1-6 against those three opponents during the Kelly era, and 1-4 the last three seasons.
That is the final hurdle for Notre Dame; the Irish must do under Kelly what it did under Lou Holtz, and that's to learn how to beat the best programs. From 1985-1990 the Miami Hurricanes were that eras version of Alabama. Notre Dame got smacked by the Hurricanes in 1985, 1986 and 1987, but in the final three seasons of the rivalry the Fighting Irish beat Miami, twice.
Miami won the national title in 1987 and 1989, and it finished 3rd in 1990. The reason it didn't win the title in 1988 and play for the title in 1990 is because it lost to Notre Dame in both seasons. From 1988 to 1993 the Florida State Seminoles went 65-9 and finished 1st, 2nd or 3rd in each season. The only team to beat Florida State in 1993, the year it won its first national title, was Notre Dame.
Notre Dame had challenging academic standards then too, southern schools were dominating then too, and top players were getting payouts back then as well. All of the reasons people use now to justify Notre Dame coming up short on the big stage were true back then, and Coach Holtz didn't exactly walk into a situation at Notre Dame where the Irish were rolling. Notre Dame failed to finish in the Top 25 in each of the five seasons prior to his arrival, and the Irish went 5-6 and 8-4 in his first two seasons.
Did anyone that watched Miami beat Notre Dame 20-0 in 1983 (a year it won the national title), 31-13 in 1984, 58-7 in 1985 or 24-0 in 1987 (another year it won a national title) that Notre Dame would be the program that slayed the mighty U?
Remember, Miami went 31-4 from 1988 to 1990, and two of those losses were to Notre Dame. Miami wins three straight national titles, possibly four, if not for Notre Dame beating them twice.
It's not easy to get over that final hump, of that there is no doubt, but it's been done before, by Notre Dame. Remember, Clemson wasn't Clemson until the program made changes. Clemson has won two national titles in the last five years and has made the CFP in each season from 2015-20.
Its previous national title before winning it in 2016 was back in 1981. From 1983 to 2011, a span of 29 years, Clemson had a grand total of two Top 10 seasons, and from 1983 to 2014, a span 32 years, the Tigers had a grand total of zero Top 5 finishes.
In the six years prior to their emergence as a national power the Tigers had gone 57-23, which is very similar to Notre Dame's 55-23 record in Kelly's first six seasons. Their failures on the big stage, which included a 70-33 Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia, four straight double digit losses to South Carolina, a 51-14 loss to Florida State the year the Seminoles won the title (2013) and a 45-21 loss to Georgia.
Clemson's big stage struggles were so bad that the word "Clemsoning" was created, and it wasn't a compliment. It was a phrase used to describe a program that failed miserably in big games.
Now, Clemson is the only program that has been able to consistently play with and beat Alabama on the big stage (2-2) and they are 3-1 against the Buckeyes.
Clemson made changes, head coach Dabo Swinney made good hires and altered the program's recruiting strategy, and the result was Clemson going from a program that was mocked for its big game failures (sound familiar?) to a program with multiple rings.
One of the teams to beat Clemson in the CFP was LSU, who knocked off the Tigers in last year's national title game. LSU's title run was more of a one-year wonder situation, but it was the result of a talented program finally stepping into the era of modern football offensively.
There are changes that Notre Dame can and should make, and those changes will allow it to take the final step. Over the next week we'll break down a number of changes Notre Dame can and should make that would allow it to take that final step, get over the hump and put itself in position to become a legitimate title contender.
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