Biggest game in the Bend since the Bush Push in 2005 or no big deal?
Both can be true as we steamroll into Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference showdown between No. 1 Clemson (7-0; 6-0 ACC) and No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0; 5-0). The hype train was barely out of the station earlier this week when Irish coach Brian Kelly attempted to slow its collective roll.
What does this one at Notre Dame Stadium mean to him? To his program? To the future of both? Kelly wasn’t going there, and was unusually salty (in the best of ways) during his Zoom meeting with the media. Win or lose and regardless of how it unfolds under the lights and in front of a crowd that may not top 11,000, Kelly cautioned that there remains the rest of a regular season. Notre Dame beats a No. 1 team for the first time since Florida State in the Game of the Century in 1993, and nothing really changes.
The Irish don’t get a pass in their remaining four league games. They don’t advance to Charlotte to play in the conference championship game days before Christmas. They won’t have their ticket validated for a College Football Playoff semifinal appearance for the second time in three years. There’s still more to do.
In some ways, this one means nothing. Seriously.
“We’re still in pursuit of a conference championship,” said Kelly, the first coach in program history to point to that prize. “We could win this game, but if you lose to (Boston College next week in New England), this game doesn’t mean anything. Look, this game, it’s not the end-all for us.”
In other ways, it is. Win this game, and everything changes for the good. For Kelly and for a program that’s spent 32 years trying to secure the secret sauce to win another national championship. The Irish have played for one only once since 1988. Many would say they really didn’t that January night in 2013 in South Florida. But they got there and haven’t been back.
Trevor Lawrence or no Trevor Lawrence — the Heisman Trophy front-runner is expected to be on the sideline Saturday as a spectator while recovering from last week’s positive coronavirus test — winning this game erases the narrative around Notre Dame for too long.
You know it. You probably mutter it.
Can’t win a big game when it matters. Can’t argue that.
Kelly can trot out all the stats that he wants, and did so earlier this week. Like how Notre Dame is 29-3 over its last 32 games. Like how the last time Notre Dame fell short in a big game — last October in Ann Arbor — it’s since ripped off a dozen wins in a row. Like how the Irish have won 22 straight at home dating back to the near-miss in 2017 against Georgia (20-19).
Throw in quarterback Ian Book’s record as a starter (26-3) and a top-10 defense (fifth in scoring at 10.3 ppg., eighth in total yards at 267.2 per game) that’s been borderline dominant and a lot of the numbers seem to finally tilt toward Notre Dame, which has been solid and steady since these teams last met in suburban Dallas days after Christmas 2018.
Take that step
A win Saturday allows the Irish to go from good to great. To stand alongside Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State and not just tag along like the little brother. It allows Kelly and his program to step clear of the big-game permacloud that hovers over the program. Some would say it’s been there since 1988. Others 1993. Maybe even since Notre Dame had its collective pants pulled down by Alabama in the national championship game. You also can point to the 30-3 loss to Clemson, after which the Irish insisted they weren’t that far off.
Whatever the date and however long you squint, it’s getting difficult to still see that last big win (at Oklahoma, 2012) in a game that Notre Dame wasn’t supposed to get.
It’s been a consistent climb back for Notre Dame since that last Clemson contest. It’s been hard. The Irish have built depth and confidence and consistency on both sides of the ball. It has arguably the best offensive line in the country. It has a defense that finally makes the other guys look slow. It’s seen Kelly become the first Irish coach since Lou Holtz to win at least 10 games in three straight seasons. Four more wins this year and Kelly becomes the first coach in program history to win at least 10 games in a season four straight times.
Let that marinate a minute.
What’s it all mean Saturday? Even Kelly’s not so sure.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You guys decide.”
All right, here it goes — there have been a lot of wins, but a lot of empty calories. Notre Dame didn’t become Notre Dame because it beat the Ball States and the Bowling Greens (no offense MACtion fans) of the college football world. Notre Dame’s not Notre Dame because it hauled home trophies from the Citrus Bowl and the Camping World Bowl (no offense Orlando). Notre Dame football is about national championships and victories in games like Saturday. It’s about rising to moments like this and playing above its collective ceiling.
It’s about answering every challenge that comes down the college football pike, not picking and choosing when to deliver and when to disappear.
That’s why this game, in some ways, means everything. Kelly won’t admit it, but he knows it. His players do too.
“A lot of people want to say it’s just another game,” said buck linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who better be the running, tackling, hitting machine he’s been hyped to be come Saturday. “It is a big game. You don’t want to hide the elephant in the room.”
Make that a herd of them, because this program has heard it all. How they can’t win the big game. How they’re always good enough to be really good, but never good enough to be great. How Book has his shortcomings as a quarterback and Kelly has his as a coach and the roster doesn’t have enough guys who will play on Sundays to make a difference on Saturdays.
All that goes away with a win Saturday, if only for a week.
That silence would be sweet. So would a new narrative. It’s been said so many times over the years — before the Georgia games, before that CFP game against Clemson, before the Michigan game — that it bears repeating.
If not now, when?
Saturday isn’t about making history or even changing it. That’s yesterday, which they say, is gone. Saturday is about setting a new course for seasons and for coaches and for players to come. Enough of just coming close.
Go win a big game. Go be a new Notre Dame.