Analysis: Defiant Brian Kelly preps for Notre Dame's very necessary perceptual battles

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That Brian Kelly mildly bristled Monday almost every time he was backed into a philosophical corner was as savvy as it was refreshingly defiant.

For as much as Saturday night’s clash between Kelly’s 11th — and perhaps his highest-ceiling — Notre Dame football team and No. 1 Clemson plays as a natural referendum on the state of Irish football, there’s more-focused messaging necessary.

Like giving the fourth-ranked Irish (6-0, 5-0 ACC) an early hangover remedy for whatever happens Saturday night, win or lose, at Notre Dame Stadium. And planting an early seed with the College Football Playoff committee that perhaps both of these teams should be playing in a Jan. 1 semifinal.

The second won’t matter if the first isn’t taken care of, as Kelly deftly pointed out during his Monday Zoom conference call with the media.

“Look, this game it’s not the end-all for us,” said Kelly, whose Irish visit nemesis Boston College and reborn former Irish QB Phil Jurkovec the following Saturday. “For us, we could win this game. But if you lose to BC, this game doesn’t mean anything.

“I mean, we’re still in pursuit of a conference championship, so it’s about steady play. It’s about raising your level of compete on Saturdays, which we’re in the process of doing. It’s about consistency in performance, which we’re certainly well on our way to checking that box.

“You’re going to get opportunities like this, and you want to win these games. But we can’t be overly emotional about this football game and lose sight of the fact we’ve got five more games to play.

“We can’t empty the tank and say, ‘Hey we beat Clemson; we’ve arrived.’ No we haven’t.”

The evolutionary step worth celebrating that Kelly is pushing for is getting to the playoff and winning on that stage. That would, of course, entail beating Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC) either at home Saturday night, Dec. 19 in the ACC Championship Game or both.

And winning a national title would likely require the daunting formula of a victory over each of the three teams ahead of Notre Dame in this week’s AP poll, pulling No. 2 Alabama (6-0) and Ohio State (2-0) into that mix.

Getting a chance to even try that, though, not only will call for no more than one loss in Notre Dame’s mid-December bottom line, but also shaping perception with the CFB selection committee that won’t spit out its first set of rankings for another three weeks (Nov. 24).

The Irish will have a chance to show just how good (or relatively untested) its defense is on Saturday night. Its perceptual hurdle is an efficient and balanced offense that lacks the opulence the three teams ahead of it in the polls — and some chasing it — have in spades.

Alabama (47.2 ppg), Clemson (46.1 ppg) and Ohio State (45.0) are Nos. 1, 2 and tied for fourth, respectively, in scoring offense nationally. The Irish are 26th at 34.8 ppg.

The CFP selection committee has the added challenge this season of staggered schedules (the final 24 of the 127 FBS teams playing football this fall open this week), vastly uneven number of games played, COVID-19 exceptions such as QB Trevor Lawrence missing Saturday’s showdown, and the lack of meaningful intersectional games to help gauge the relative strength of conferences.

The best argument the ACC can put forth is exceptional talent.

Yes, it reads like a typo, or an aspiration, but in 2020 it’s actually quite valid.

In Pro Football Focus’ latest rankings of the top 100 prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft, 27 of them (including opt-outs in every major conference) came from the ACC, including Notre Dame.

The SEC was second with 25, followed by the Big Ten at 19, and 10 each for the Big 12 and Pac-12 among the Power 5.

Adding Notre Dame into the ACC yearly totals to make this truly an apples-to-apples equation, the ACC/ND had 10 players drafted in the top 100 last spring. Let that sink in.

The SEC led the way with 39 and, in fact, had more first-rounders in 2020 (15) than the Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC/ND had in the top 100. The highest number of ACC/ND players taken in the top 100 in each of the last 10 drafts has been 21 (2011).

The sales pitch to the CFP also must include qualifying why there are only three ACC teams ranked in the Top 25, although all three — including Miami (5-1, 4-1) — are in the top 11.

You could make a case for mass parity once you get to fourth place in the league, with teams like North Carolina, Wake Forest, NC State, Boston College and Virginia Tech seemingly capable of challenging the top three while also susceptible to teams lower in the standings.

Another selling point is how Notre Dame and Clemson are faring nationally in the five key metrics in which championship teams tend to excel — rush offense, team passing efficiency, rush defense, total defensive and turnover margin.

Clemson is the only AP top 10 team that currently checks as many as four of those boxes as being in the top 20 percent nationally. Notre Dame is in the top 11 in three, is the best rushing team in the AP Top 10 (11th nationally out of 103) and second-best among those 10 teams in both rushing defense (eighth overall) and total defense (sixth).

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While the committee professes to start each year with a clean slate when it comes to the eye test, it’s difficult to be completely blind to past performances and patterns, even if it might be subconsciously.

The Irish, for all their success since Kelly’s post-2016 coaching reboot, are stalked by a noxious narrative of what could happen when the bright lights come on again.

The last time Notre Dame and Clemson faced each other, in a 2018 CFB semifinal in Arlington, Texas, Kelly quietly and mostly privately absorbed the lessons learned and applied them behind the scenes. More overtly he shared that he didn’t think the 30-3 margin that favored the eventual national champions was reflective of how far his program had come from its 4-8 cratering in 2016 and where it had the potential to go.

“I look back at the ’18 team, and we had three young offensive linemen who handled themselves very well against one of the best defensive lines in the country,” Kelly reflected Monday. “We had some young defensive players who I thought did a very, very good job.

“I just felt like we had a lot of young players that were going to continue to grow in our program. And we played an outstanding football team. People fail to recognize the next week they absolutely blitzed Alabama (44-16 in the national championship game).

“And nobody talked about the talent gap there. Nobody talked about the coaching gap there. They just talked about the talent gap and the coaching gap in the Notre Dame-and-Clemson game, but I just felt like from the eye test and what I saw, that that was my opinion.

“And really all that matters is we get an opportunity to play Clemson this Saturday and compete against them. And who knows? It might not be the only time we play them this year.”

Kelly’s new pet stat Monday in pushing back the questions that irked him the most was “29-3,” the Irish record over its last 32 games dating back to the start of the 2018 season. You could actually fluff that up to 30-3 in the past 33 if you include the 21-17 Citrus Bowl rally past LSU at the end of the 2017 season in which quarterback Ian Book came off the bench and, ironically, impressed in the deep passing game.

Also ironic is that there wasn’t a single question — or answer — Monday about Book, the nation’s No. 35 QB in passing efficiency, who opposes fabulous freshman fill-in D.J. Uiagalelei Saturday with Lawrence completing his recovery from a bout with COVID-19.

He’ll make his 30th career start Saturday night, though likely more as a complementary piece than someone expected to ride off with the biggest, boldest headlines.

And Kelly is OK with the hyperbole and the projections thrown his and his team’s way postgame, as long as it doesn’t muddy the mission, which includes eventually winning the war of perception.

“There will be enough time to evaluate all this, and there will be plenty of opinions and pundits will make their own assessments,” Kelly said, “but we feel pretty good about where we are.

“We’ll continue to develop our players in the manner in which we feel is best for Notre Dame. And (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney) is going to continue to do a great job of developing the players that he has in the manner that he has. But we have different business plans.

“We’ll do what we’re doing. It should make for a great game on Saturday. I can tell you that.”

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) tries to get past Clemson’s A.J. Terrell (8) during Clemson’s 30-3 playoff romp over the Irish, Dec. 29, 2018, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Who: No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. No. 1 Clemson (7-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Clemson by 5 1/2