Notre Dame growth process could start with win over Ohio State

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Growth potential is the benefit of a bowl to a college football team.

Notre Dame found the best possible scenario Sunday when it was matched against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

This is a “Big Boy Bowl,” something the Irish haven’t experienced since after the 2012 season.

And we all know that didn’t turn out well.

Heck, it’s been a long time since they won one of these games that people really care about.

This ain’t Nashville against a fragile LSU team.

Notre Dame has so much to gain. This is an opportunity for the Irish to build into a top-four caliber program. That means the defense has to be a whole lot better; the red-zone offense can’t “put the ball in harm’s way,” as quarterback DeShone Kizer likes to say; the intensity level has to be more consistent.

A 10-2 season has put Notre Dame into a positive postseason position. Don’t have to think back too far to remember Rutgers at Yankee Stadium.

Don’t take the venue and the competition for granted. Notre Dame is able to play a higher-ranked opponent, the premise and foundation of the school’s postseason participation plan of years gone by.

If you’re not in the top four, you better be building toward it. What better way to show the world that your defense is improved than by keeping Ezekiel Elliott from rushing for 300 yards? When he felt he didn’t get enough carries in the loss to Michigan State, the running back called out his coaches – while also saying this time next year he’d be in the NFL.

Elliott backed up his discontent by rushing for 214 yards against Michigan.

And the Irish thought holding Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey under 100 was a big deal.

It’s time for the Notre Dame program under Brian Kelly to finally grow up. The 12-1 season in ’12, tainted by the lopsided loss to Alabama, wasn’t a starting point for long-term success.

Dynasty is just something Notre Dame used to be. From ’88, Notre Dame was in the championship conversation through 1993.

It all starts with a solid foundation – something a win over Ohio State in a big-on-big matchup can establish.

Given the circumstances of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee’s final rankings, it would be an intriguing “what if…?” to wonder what would happen if the playoff format were expanded from four to eight teams.

That would mean Ohio State and Notre Dame would have been the last two teams included.

Kelly couldn’t help but get a chuckle out of it Sunday.

“This conversation continues to unfold,” Kelly said. “It's a conversation that we'll continue to have. Those eight teams, if you look at the first eight, that would be a pretty good playoff. Everybody would be excited about it.

“You've just got to keep moving in this direction. You've got to keep putting quality football teams in a position where it gets talked about, and you know, hopefully there continues to be an appetite for college football at a deeper level.

“But we've got it down pretty good right now with the four teams. It's very competitive. Certainly, when you're on the outside looking in, you want more teams in it. The committee has done a great job. They take it serious. They look at everything.

“But you know, if college football continues on its trend of popularity and teams building the way they are, it's going to be hard to stay at four.”

The challenge, whether it’s four or eight, is to be there. Following this season with mediocrity would be a serious step backward. Part of the growth process is continuity.

Beating a team the caliber of Ohio State is the best place to begin.

Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (7) celebrates a touchdown with teammates during the first half of Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN