The miscalculation for those who either hope/fear Notre Dame’s second-ever College Football Playoff appearance turns out to be a program referendum is that top-ranked Alabama is not a stationary target.
Notre Dame’s obsession — its fan base included — since a 42-14 defrocking by Alabama in the BCS National Championship eight seasons ago, and its mantra since a 30-3 smothering from Clemson in a 2018 playoff loss has been “closing the gap” on this generation’s postseason ogres.
Friday’s CFP semifinal at the relocated Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas (4 p.m. EST; ABC), seemed like a convenient checkpoint for No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) to gauge that, particularly in light of the two disparate outcomes against playoff semifinalist Clemson this season.
Where the algorithm fails is that No. 1 Alabama (11-0) has been closing the gap too, since the last meeting between the two teams, in 2012.
Since that 2012 coronation, Alabama has since added national titles in 2015 and 2017, made six of the seven playoff fields, and sent a FBS-high 72 players to the NFL via the draft, more than half of those first- or second-rounders.
The Crimson Tide hasn’t just recruited. It’s hoarded.
Alabama has accrued five more No. 1 classes, per Rivals.com, and almost doubled the number of top 50 prospects (49) from the 2013 cycle through this year’s freshman class on Clemson (29).
Perhaps the most imposing notion for the rest of the college football world to digest is that the man considered the best coach of this generation and likely others — Nick Saban, at age 69 — is getting better.
“Alabama plays very differently than the 2012 Alabama team that you saw, because you have to play differently in college football these days.” said Cecil Hurt, the sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News, who’s been covering Crimson Tide football since 1982. “You have to score more points.
“And Nick simultaneously hates that, but no matter what he hates, he loves winning more than he hates having to change. He will change, because he loves to win.
“So he has changed. They’re more athletic defensively. Guys that can play in space. They’re not as big and powerful up front defensively. It won’t be the same offensive line, where they just pound you and grind you, because that’s not what they try and do offensively anymore.
“I think that’s what separates the coaches that are at the very pinnacle of the game from everybody else. Not only do they have success, but they don’t become prisoners of their own success and preclude themselves from having even more success.”
Whether the Irish, as the biggest Vegas underdog in playoff history (20 points), can find a path to its 10th toppling of a No. 1 team in program history and advance to the Jan. 11 title game in Miami, the long-term takeaway worth holding onto is that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is evolving as well.
Not just from his first season in 2010, when parading around with a Sun Bowl trophy at the end of an eight-win season felt like a milestone. And not just from the transformative offseason after a 4-8 divot in 2016 that galvanized a 43-7 response in the 50 games since.
Kelly has evolved since 2019. Since the September COVID-19 team outbreak that threatened to swallow the season. Since yesterday.
“Open-minded people stay abreast with what’s going on around them,” said longtime Kelly confidant Rick Minter, who had two tours of duty as ND’s defensive coordinator, first under Lou Holtz (1992-93) and then under Charlie Weis (2005-06).
“They overcome, adjust, adapt, change, try to be a better version of themselves next time out. Listen to people. Go visit people. Have people come in who do it differently. Hear them out. Just like Brian did personally when he talked to all the players a few years ago, and he just kind of reinvented himself.
“Maybe all of us get in a little bit of a rut at times of our own behavior, only to be reminded of what’s another way it can be done. And I think he found that formula at Notre Dame.”
Where it’s brought Kelly and Notre Dame is a place only four of the other 130 FBS programs have been so far, a second appearance at the playoff party.
Only this year’s three other semifinalists — Alabama and Sugar Bowl combatants Ohio State and Clemson — and Big 12 heavyweight Oklahoma can also claim that.
That in itself is reason to celebrate.
“Being in the playoffs only enhances Notre Dame's image and their brand that they can play with anybody, even if you get beat,” Minter said. “But you have to get to the party.”
The bigger payoff potentially, though, is the chase, built around Kelly’s belief that Friday shouldn’t represent the pinnacle of post-Lou Holtz Era football.
But rather a step to possibly something bigger down the road.
The brightest star on this Notre Dame team is a former three-star prospect, poached from Virginia’s class and verbally committing on national signing day 2017 via a semi-botched staged phone call in front of the media.
And yet senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the 2020 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best linebacker, is hardly an outlier.
Twelve out of the 22 players who started Dec. 19 against Clemson, including quarterback Ian Book and eight on the best third-down defensive unit of the Kelly Era, are also Rivals three-stars.
Add to that nine four stars and five-star defensive end Daelin Hayes, it looks like the Irish are regressing in talent. Alabama’s starting lineup in its SEC Championship Game victory over Florida on Dec. 19 featured two three-stars, 13 four-stars and six five-stars.
And in 2012 the makeup was almost identical: 5-15-2 3/4/5 stars for Notre Dame and 5-14-3 for Alabama in the starting lineups for the BCS National Championship Game.
“It's a deeper roster, more physical on both sides of the ball,” Kelly qualified last Sunday on how his 2020 roster was different/better than 2012’s, despite the star rankings suggesting otherwise.
“There were certainly some very talented players on that 2012 roster. In fact, some of them are still in the league doing quite well.
“But I think overall the depth of the roster, the ability to make plays on both sides of the ball and, quite frankly, just the size and physicality on both the offensive and defensive line is probably the biggest departure from 2012.”
There are two major flaws in relying solely on star ratings to evaluate talent differentials on rosters, however.
The first is that the four-star category is so broad, it goes from typically the No. 35 player in the country to just outside the top 250. That’s the difference between an early second-rounder and an undrafted free agent who just missed getting picked in round 7 on the pro level.
And the three-star tag isn’t intended to designate a prospect with a finitely low ceiling necessarily, but rather one who’s more unfinished for whatever reason, where there’s more projection than production involved in calculating a career trajectory.
In other words, there’s more margin for error.
A more telling breakdown of ready-made elite talent is the amassing of top 50 and top 100 players. And in that sense, the gap between Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State and Notre Dame, as well as most other programs, appears to be widening.
In the eight classes that immediately followed the 2012 ND-Bama championship clash, Alabama signed 75 Rivals top 100 players. Ohio State signed 66, Clemson 40 and Notre Dame 25. In sifting down to the top 50, it’s Alabama 49, OSU 33, Clemson 29 and Notre Dame 11.
“That’s the one thing I don’t like about the playoff,” Minter said. “You’ve kind of created three monsters.”
But if it were ONLY about talent, then Georgia (55 top 100/36 top 50) would have had a national title in the Playoff Era, and USC (48/31) and Florida State (42/25) would be regular playoff participants.
As it is, Florida State — buoyed by a controversial midseason win over Notre Dame in 2014 when an offensive pass interference call wiped out ND’s winning score — finished third in the first playoff cycle, was ninth the next year, 11th in 2016 and out of the top 25 ever since.
USC hasn’t yet made the playoff, and the closest it’s come in the final CFP rankings is eighth.
There are player development and cultural elements missing at both places, and others.
But Alabama doesn’t have either problem. The Crimson Tide, for instance, has its share of players jumping into the transfer portal, but it’s able to attract and retain top players that other programs lose to impatience.
“Culturally, those players accept that they’re going to have to wait,” Hurt said. “Najee Harris, the No. 1 running back in the country, he sat for two years. Derrick Henry sat for a year. And when your best players are bought in like that, then everything follows from that.
“They see that’s how it’s been done, and they want to win a championship. And that’s how they’re recruited. Nick doesn’t have to go to Najee Harris and say, ‘All right you’re going to start. We’re going to give you the ball first in the first game.’
“He says, ‘This is our philosophy. There are going to be seniors in front of you.’ He doesn’t have to promise anybody that they’ll start. That doesn’t mean they won’t start as freshmen if they’re good enough, but they don’t have to promise that or necessarily build a team around any one guy.”
Notre Dame’s cultural answer is elite player evaluation led by director of scouting Bill Rees, embracing and selling the school’s high academic bar instead of pushing for admittance of players who would never be able to survive academically long term anyway, and a player development model that turns three-stars into five-stars with some regularity.
In fact, if you look at the ratios of top 50 and top 100 players to eventual first/second-round draft picks and overall NFL draftees, Oklahoma and Notre Dame are the two schools that are producing well above their recruiting grades and everyone else’s.
Not that Kelly is satisfied with the recruiting status quo.
“I think where my mindset has changed is I don’t want to put a ceiling on where we should be in the rankings,” Kelly said earlier this month. “I think we should push to find the best players in the country just as if we’re pushing to be the best football team in the country.
“I think from a recruiting standpoint, we know who we want to be and we know who fits here. If that puts us at an artificial ceiling, then so be it. But we shouldn’t create one on our own.
“We’ve taken that away and said, ‘Let’s try to have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, but still going with those we believe will succeed here at Notre Dame. And let it take it where it takes us.”
The retro model
Notre Dame arrives Friday with a complementary/ball-control model of X’s and O’s that looks more in concept like what Saban used to do than what was on the Kelly résumé that Notre athletic director Jack Swarbrick became so smitten with 11 Decembers ago.
Most notably, that 2009 Cincinnati team that was one Texas missed field goal away in a tight Big 12 title game from playing Alabama for the national championship, was dead last in time of possession. And Kelly was darn proud of it.
In 2020, his team is eighth out of 127.
“That was when Brian won by outhustling everybody, out-conditioning everybody.” said Minter, himself a head coach at Cincinnati earlier in his career. “And now Brian sits back and says, “What needs to work?’
“I think you could almost change some of that philosophy year to year based on the character of your team. That was one of the things I really liked about coaching with Lou Holtz. He knew how to coach to the strength of his football team.
“There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat.”
Notre Dame’s 2020 approach certainly lacks the offensive opulence of the other three teams in the playoff field. It was more than good enough to get the Irish into the playoff field, but is it a philosophy that can win games at the playoff level?
ND’s 31-17 victory at North Carolina on Nov. 27 was the model at its best. The Irish played keepaway, limiting the nation’s No. 4 team in total offense to 57 plays (about 13 below the national average) and 298 total yards (a little more than half the Tar Heels’ per-game average).
But it works best when playing with the lead. And Notre Dame trailed in regulation this season just 44:47 in the 600 minutes leading up to the Clemson rematch on Dec. 19.
In that game, a 34-10 Tigers romp, it shows what can go wrong with that approach. Clemson led for 45:41 and the Irish unraveled.
“You have less room for error if you’re going to play with fewer plays,” Minter said. “That’s the down side.
“So you can’t have a dropped pass. You can’t have untimely penalties, turnovers at the wrong time, because you’re just going to end up with less plays, less possessions and less opportunities to put points on people.”
If there is a next time at the playoff party, Notre Dame will likely have morphed again in its in-game identity while doubling down on its cultural one.
Among the most significant elements are those adopted in the 2016-17 Kelly makeover: Improved player relations and accessibility; the hiring of director of football performance Matt Bailis and the sports science advancements in injury prevention and postgame recovery he brought with him; the hiring of mental performance specialist Dr. Amber Selking; and a plan to build accountability and leadership within the player ranks.
“It’s those kinds of changes that make what Brian Kelly does on the field from year to year sustainable,” Minter said.
In other words, it’s a program built to come knocking on the door again until it breaks through it. But will the results match the intention?
Maybe. Maybe not. But there’s no question the chase is on.