Notre Dame treating College Football Playoff bid as only another step in national championship chase

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly didn’t need to stump for Notre Dame to receive a spot in the College Football Playoff.

A week after finishing the regular season undefeated, the Irish head coach could sit back while teams battled in their conference championship games for a bid to the four-team playoff.

It wasn’t all sitting for Kelly. He said he had household chores to take care of on Saturday including putting away all the patio furniture at his home.

On Sunday, Kelly and the Irish received the expected news. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) will take on No. 2 Clemson (13-0) in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in one national semifinal. The Dec. 29 matchup will kick off at 4 p.m. EST on ESPN.

No. 1 Alabama (13-0) and No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) will meet in the Orange Bowl national semifinal later that day at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. The winners will advance to the national championship game Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

If the Irish didn’t make the College Football Playoff, Kelly joked that he had a contingency plan. He’d follow the model of UCF, which declared itself national champion following last season’s 13-0 record.

“I had already talked to somebody about a statue, a Brian Kelly statue, right?” Kelly joked. “We would be the national champs. So a statue, and I would get on the “Play Like a Champion” sign, 12-0 and that would be fine with me.”

There was little doubt from the Irish that a spot in the playoff was deserved.

“I don’t think anyone on the team was nervous,” said quarterback Ian Book. “The whole team was really confident. Yeah, we feel like we deserved a spot in the playoffs. To see that work out is something that we wanted to do and accomplish all year.”

Kelly and the Irish coaching staff spent most of last week on the recruiting trail with the players involved with weight training and unsupervised (per NCAA rules) seven-on-seven back on campus. The Irish will take the practice field for the first time on Saturday with more conditioning and weight training during the week.

The Irish will schedule practice around final exams for the fall semester next week and continue with practice before the players are released to go home Dec. 21. Then the team will report to the Dallas area on Dec. 24.

The preparation will be a little different from a typical bowl game, Kelly said. He wants his players to believe another game is ahead of them following the semifinal.

“The bowl game is a whole different mentality,” Kelly said. “You’re thinking about yourself and what bowl gifts you get. ‘This is it for me. Maybe I don’t play. I don’t want to get hurt.’

“There’s a different mindset. This is: We’re on a journey here. We’re going to continue on the next step. We want to win a national championship.”

Kelly has experience in a playoff setting at the Division II level from his time at Grand Valley State. He compiled an 11-4 record in six playoff appearances and won 11 of his last 12 playoff games with two national championships.

“All of our work was done in November to get us into the final four,” Kelly said. “Now there’s four teams left. They are all great teams. You have to be really sharp for two weeks.”

The Irish coaching staff can also consider playing freshmen who have yet to play without fear of burning their redshirt, unlike in previous years. Kelly didn’t want to reveal any names Sunday, but he seemed to hint that some freshman wide receivers — maybe Braden Lenzy or Lawrence Keys III — could get an opportunity to add speed to the offense.

By being placed in the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame avoids having to relive its last two trips to Miami: last year’s 41-8 loss to the Hurricanes and the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game in January 2013.

Skeptics of the Irish will point to the latter as evidence that the current team can’t compete on a national stage. But Kelly has used the former as a learning experience all season long. So far, the lessons from the Miami disaster last season have turned into positives in 2018.

“We’ll take some of the precautions or some of the steps necessary to make sure that when we flip to a game kind of mentality that they are ready for what may happen in that kind of environment,” Kelly said.

The last time Notre Dame played Clemson, the Irish fell 24-22 in a rain-soaked game in South Carolina in 2015. It’s a bit of a stretch to try to draw parallels between that game and the one awaiting both teams.

The Tigers have now reached the College Football Playoff for a fourth consecutive year with a national championship following the 2016 season. This is the first trip to the playoff for Notre Dame since it began in 2014.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney started the deference to the Irish Sunday on ESPN by suggesting Kelly should win Coach of the Year.

“I didn’t get into this business to get Coach of the Year, you know, so that’s great that he said that,” Kelly said. “I think he’s done an incredible job. I think Nick Saban has done an incredible job.

“It’s like our players, right? If they came in here and said, ‘I’m only in it to get the Heisman,’ we would be like, ‘OK, well, what about team awards?’ I’m more interested in our guys winning a national championship.”

Kelly had plenty of compliments to offer about Clemson too. He highlighted an offense averaging 529.8 yards per game and 45.4 points per game — both ranked No. 5 in the country — led by sophomore running back Travis Etienne (1,463 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns) and freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence (2,488 passing yards and 22 passing touchdowns).

The defense is loaded with future NFL Draft picks particularly on the defensive line with defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins and defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. The Tigers rank in the top four nationally in scoring defense (13.7 points per game), rushing defense (93 yards per game) and total defense (276.8 yards per game).

“Certainly their offensive firepower is outstanding,” Kelly said. “Etienne at the running back position, great depth. We all know about Trevor Lawrence and what he can do at the quarterback position, wide receivers.

“Defensively, one of the best defensive lines in the country, and a team that wins and knows how to win.”

The Irish can’t take much time to celebrate its playoff bid with such a tough opponent ahead.

“You savor it because this is what you work for and you earn this,” said center Sam Mustipher. “But our initial goal is to win the national championship, and we haven’t done that. So I don’t think there should be too much rejoicing right now.”

That’s the attitude Kelly wants from his team. He wants them to realize that finishing a season 12-0 was only barely good enough to reach the playoff. The Irish have more work to do if they want to be remembered as a great team at Notre Dame.

“Listen, they go 12-0, they don’t even get on the ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign,” Kelly said. “You don’t get on that sign. You only get on that sign if you win a national championship. There’s no significance of it, so they get that. That’s their why. Their why is to win a national championship.

“So for them to sit around and pat themselves on the back for being 12-0, that doesn’t get them anything. They get that. That’s why they come here. They want to win a national championship.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly waits to lead his team onto the field during the Notre Dame-Pittsburgh game.

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)

WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 29, 4 p.m. (EST)

WHERE: AT&T Stadium; Arlington Texas

TV: ESPN

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Clemson by 11 1/2