Notre Dame Restless Despite 11-2 Season. And It Should Be.

Herb Gould

Notre Dame disrespected?

``You read this team wrong,’’ pugnacious Brian Kelly said, miffed that people thought Notre Dame would not be interested—and not show up—for its Camping World Bowl game, and would be handled by pesky, gritty Iowa State.

If that’s all that he was talking about, the Irish certainly proved their doubters wrong by routing the Cyclones 33-9.

But you have to wonder if he was talking about more than this game.

Because Notre Dame—which finished 11-2 but was relegated to a bowl game that was, well, camping compared to the New Year’s Six—was written off by doubters long before that. With its third straight season of double-digit wins (33 overall), ND tied the school record for wins in a three-year span. And yet, that still won't get you an Irish Coffee at Starbucks.

If the Witness Protection Program gave out an Under-the-Radar Team of the Year Award, the Irish would be their invisible men.

In all but a handful of places, 10-2 would be regarded as a really nice season. Notre Dame is not one of those places. And all of the modern bowl tie-in realities leave no room for an Irish team that used to have its pick of elite bowls.

Surely the Orange and Cotton bowls—and maybe even the Sugar Bowl—would have jumped at the chance to have the Irish if that had not been prohibited by college-football law.

Face it. After Notre Dame was smoked by Michigan 45-14 on Oct. 26, it became an after-thought. If people thought about ND at all.

The Domers deserve no sympathy for that. When you tell the world, ``It’s national championship or bust’’ by declining to play for the mundane goals that can be achieved in a conference, that’s the way it goes.


The real question, though, is this: Can ND go from obscurity in 2019 to the College Football Playoff in 2020?

From Kelly on down, the Irish seem to think so. And there are reasons to believe. With skepticism.

A lot of pieces will need to fall into place. Quarterback Ian Book’s announcement that he will return is a good thing. But while he’s very solid, Book has yet to prove he has the kind of talent to match up with the elite QBs in this year’s playoff.

Book is 20-3 as a starter. He passed for 3,034 yards and 34 TDs this fall, with 546 rushing yards and 4 TDs. Good stuff. But can he be a Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence in the biggest of games? That’s a big question.

Elsewhere, the Irish also will need returnees to step up and some ballyhooed recruits to hit the ground running. And receiving and tackling.

It looks like Tommy Rees, who served as offensive coordinator against Iowa State after Kelly dumped Chip Long, will keep the job permanently. Although just 27, the former Irish QB is considered a rising star. Rees was mentioned as a possible O.C. at Northwestern, where he was a graduate assistant. But he stayed at Notre Dame while Kelly was parting ways with Long.

If elevated, Rees would follow the trend of young offensive prodigies in college football that includes LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady, 30, and Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who became the Sooners’ O.C. in 2015 and O.C. at East Carolina in 2010, when he was 27.


In 2019, Notre Dame’s key opportunities to make its playoff case came at Georgia and Michigan. In 2020, the move-the-needle games are looking like a showdown with Wisconsin at the Packers’ Lambeau Field home and Clemson’s visit to South Bend.

Beyond that, there are no guarantees of opportunities for statement wins. The most intriguing possibilities are the final two opponents, Louisville, which made great strides this fall under new coach Scott Satterfield, and enigmatic USC, which figures to come out of its under-performing shell someday.

The Irish schedule once again includes a lot of barnstorming and frequent-flier miles. ND opens with Navy in Dublin, the latest Irish-in-Ireland foray. It will play its other non-South-Bend games in five different NFL stadiums, which must be some kind of unofficial record.

In the end, though, 2020 is likely to depend on the Wisconsin and Clemson statement games. Lose those two and win the rest, and next season is likely to look like this one: A 10-2 record that is in some ways awfully good, and in other ways awfully hollow for a team that starts each year saying, ``No conference for us. National championship or bust.’’


Aug. 29, Navy (Dublin, Ireland)

Sept. 12, Arkansas

Sept. 19, Western Michigan

Sept. 26, Wake Forest (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.)

Oct. 3, Wisconsin (Lambeau Field, Green Bay)

Oct. 10, Stanford

Oct. 17, at Pitt (Heinz Field, Pittsburgh)

Oct. 24, Bye

Oct. 31, Duke

Nov. 7, Clemson

Nov. 14, at Georgia Tech (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta)

Nov. 21, Louisville

Nov. 28, at USC (L.A. Coliseum)


Herb Gould