Notre Dame's heavy underdog role doesn't diminish its playoff opportunity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In the days that followed both his Notre Dame football team’s January 2013 reality check delivered by Alabama and the serious thoughts that ensued of opting out for an NFL job, Brian Kelly remapped his ND blueprint.

Football has evolved and so have the answers the Irish football coach concocted to try to build sustainable success at Notre Dame and a path to actually winning big games in the postseason.

What hasn’t changed? Eight seasons later, Alabama — A 42-14 victor to cap the 2012 season — is still the gold standard.

On Jan. 1, the two football programs finally collide again.

The College Football Playoff selection committee Sunday paired the No. 1 Crimson Tide (11-0) against the No. 4 Irish (10-1) to meet in the relocated Rose Bowl semifinal in Arlington, Texas. No. 2 Clemson (10-1) and No. 3 Ohio State (6-0) clash in the Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1 in New Orleans.

The survivors meet Jan. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., to crown a champion in the wildest college football season since, say, 1918 — when the sport dodged at times and forged through at others a pandemic.


The current pandemic also figured into the reasoning behind staging the Alabama-ND semifinal in Texas rather than New Orleans.

“Related to the uniqueness of this year, the No. 1 team by the committee is always given the benefit of the doubt or maybe the biggest advantage," CFP selection committee chairman Gary Barta said. "In this case, we know that there’s going to be 16,000 fans able to watch in Arlington, and we know there are going to be 3,000 fans that are going to be able to watch the game in New Orleans.

“So the committee decided that the advantage was for the No. 1 team to have more fans able to watch them.”

Notre Dame’s 34-10 waxing from perennial ACC kingpin Clemson Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., bumped the Irish down two spots in the final CFP standings. Alabama had a bad night too, relatively speaking.

The Crimson Tide rolled up 605 yards in total offense, but had to hold on late for a 52-46 victory over Florida in the SEC Championship Game, Saturday night in Atlanta.

Had the Irish slipped to No. 5 or lower, they would have ended up in the Jan. 2 Orange Bowl.

The Rose Bowl matchup will be ND’s second confrontation with a No. 1-ranked team in less than 60 days. Its Nov. 7 game with then-No. 1 Clemson, a 47-40 double overtime Irish victory, came after a 15-year wait to play No. 1.

Just on the outside looking in on the playoff were No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1) and No. 6 Oklahoma (8-2).

“Two teams that have really similar résumés," Barta said in explaining what gave the Irish the edge over the Aggies. "They’ve played similar schedules. Coming into this weekend, Notre Dame was undefeated. They had beaten the No. 2 team, now in Clemson, and on the road against the No. 13 team, in North Carolina.

“And Texas A&M’s top win was against a very good Florida team. So very similar résumés. But in the end, the committee felt like Notre Dame had earned its way there based on the complete analysis of the résumé, and that probably came down to having an additional win against a ranked team.”

Interestingly, Texas A&M is matched up in the Orange Bowl against ND’s résumé-booster, North Carolina (8-3), which the Irish vanquished, 31-17, on the road on Nov. 27. Had the Aggies overtaken ND in the final CFP rankings, ND’s likely Orange Bowl opponent would have been No. 7 Florida (8-3).

The best news to come out Sunday for the Irish regarding their actual postseason matchup is that sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, an All-America candidate, is expected to be available for the game.

Kelly termed the ankle sprain he suffered Saturday against Clemson, a “nagging injury” and said he expects ND’s co-leader in tackles to return to practice by midweek.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (16) runs the ball during the ACC Championship football game on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, inside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Clemson won 34-10.

“We’ve got to monitor him and get him back,” Kelly said. “He’s an important piece. And (there’s) nobody (else) really that we feel won’t be able to play. We’ll be careful with the guys. They’ll have some time off as well.”

In other depth chart news, Kelly said the situation at center between senior Josh Lugg and sophomore Zeke Correll will remain a competitive one in practice.

Correll started against North Carolina on Nov. 27 after starter Jarrett Patterson was lost for the season with a broken bone in his foot. Correll, though, suffered an ankle injury in that game, and Lugg then started against Syracuse on Dec. 5 and against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday.

“I would not say right now after watching the film that Josh had a subpar game at all,” Kelly said. “There were a number of different breakdowns. … so Josh would not be the guy we would single out and say we were ineffective running the ball, because Josh Lugg did not play well.”

The jaded Irish fan extrapolates what happened big picture-wise Saturday in Charlotte, looks at the bulging Vegas line (19 1/2 points as of Sunday evening) and asks, “Does any of that even matter?”

Kelly is determined to show that it does.

“We've got a really good football team,” he said Sunday. “We didn't play up to our capabilities (Saturday). And Clemson played very, very well. We didn't play with the same edge.

“We didn't play with the same kind of tenacity necessary in a championship game. That's on me. I've got to get our team to play better in that moment.

“But there wasn't this gap of physicality that had been there in the past. … So certainly capable as a football team to go in and beat anybody on any given day. That probably wasn't the case a few years back. But we've got to play up to our level. And that will be the case going against a great Alabama team.”


What do the Irish have to lose?

Of the 12 semifinals staged in the Playoff Era, nine have been decided by double digits. And there have been more margins of 30 points or more (4) than there have been by single digits (3).

Statistically, the Irish match up better in 2020 against Alabama than the one that trucked them in 2012 or the one they would have met in the 2018 CFP National Championship Game had they gotten by Clemson in the semis.

In the five key metrics in which championship teams tend to excel — rush offense, pass efficiency, rush defense, total defense and turnover margin — both the 2012 and 2018 Tide teams held an edge in all five categories.

In fact, ND’s No. 74 standing in pass efficiency in 2012 still stands as the worst of any team that has played for a national title in the 16 BCS championship matchups and the six in the Playoff Era.

In 2020, the Irish hold an edge in rush offense and total defense. Pass efficiency (Alabama No. 1, ND No. 38) is the biggest statistical discrepancy.

“We've probably changed as the game has changed,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday on how his own program has evolved since 2012. “Play a little different style on offense.

“We were more run the ball, play-action pass, NFL-type offense back in the 2012 days than we are right now. (Now) more sort of NFL style but also incorporated a lot of the spread concepts of RPOs and those types of things.

“So we've kind of evolved a little bit as the game has evolved on the field. But the culture of the program really hasn't changed.”

For the portion of the Irish fan base afraid to find out whether the bottom line has moved much since 2012, there are plenty of teams headed to less-consequential postseason games elsewhere that would gladly trade places with Notre Dame on Jan. 1.

In a heartbeat.

Alabama coach Nick Saban meets Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly after the BCS National Championship on Jan. 7, 2013. Alabama won 42-14.

1. Alabama 11-0

2. Clemson 10-1

3. Ohio State 6-0

4. Notre Dame 10-1

5. Texas A&M 8-1

6. Oklahoma 8-2

7. Florida 8-3

8. Cincinnati 9-0

9. Georgia 7-2

10. Iowa State 8-3

11. Indiana 6-1

12. Coastal Carolina 11-0

13. North Carolina 8-3

14. Northwestern 6-2

15. Iowa 6-2

16. BYU 10-1

17. USC 5-1

18. Miami (FL) 8-2

19. Louisiana 9-1

20. Texas 6-3

21. Oklahoma State 7-3

22. San Jose State 7-0

23. NC State 8-3

24. Tulsa 6-2

25. Oregon 4-2