If it’s not Notre Dame, then who is it?
Answer that question before launching the obligatory round of Irish criticism that is sure to come after the latest playoff failure.
No. 1 Alabama routed No. 4 Notre Dame 31-14 in the relocated Rose Bowl Game at AT&T Stadium on Friday. The Irish own a combined record of 0-7 in BCS bowls and College Football Playoff semifinals.
Notre Dame (10-2) still looks a long way from its first national championship since 1988. A unique 2020 season in which the Irish finished unbeaten in the regular season through a one-year lease as an ACC conference member ended in the same uncomfortable territory: double-barrel losses to Clemson (10-1) in the ACC championship game and Alabama (12-0) in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Target Notre Dame as a big-game fraud if that’s your thing. The Crimson Tide beat Notre Dame 42-14 in the 2013 BCS championship game, and the Tigers beat the Irish 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl semifinal in 2018. Those are high-visibility losses on the sport’s biggest stage. Notre Dame remains one of the most polarizing brands in the sport, and the easiest one to tag as overrated.
The same tag could apply for any program not named Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State. That’s the problem: The Crimson Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes have combined for a 108-7 record since 2018.
Notre Dame is 33-5 in the same stretch. That’s the fourth-best record in the FBS among Power 5 schools. Oklahoma (33-6), Georgia (31-7) and LSU (30-8) — which upset the establishment with a magical CFP championship outside those three teams last season — are the other Power 5 schools with at least 30 wins in that stretch.
Appalachian State (33-6) and Cincinnati (31-6) — which had a legit Playoff argument but lost to Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Friday — are the Group of 5 schools with 30 or more wins. They won’t be in the CFP until there’s an eight-team setup.
None of those programs is a fraud. Notre Dame, like everybody else, simply isn’t on the level of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. The Irish can’t be solely blamed when there wasn’t a good answer at No. 4 in 2020.
This is the frustrating challenge for Irish coach Brian Kelly, who isn’t wrong when he says the Irish are building a model that’s better-designed to challenge the superstore programs. Notre Dame is a legitimate top-five program in a three-team sport.
The Irish made progress toward that goal in 2020. They beat Clemson 47-40 in a double-overtime thriller in November, albeit without Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence playing for the Tigers. Ian Book leaves Notre Dame as the school’s all-time leader in wins. Running back Kyren Williams and tight end Michael Mayer are among the NFL-ready pieces the next quarterback can build around. The All-Americans are there on the front seven on both sides now.
The Irish have a talented team, but that’s not enough.
Alabama made that clear with touchdown drives on three of their four first-half possessions. They came with an exhibition of flawless execution on offense. Mac Jones hit 12 of his first 13 passes. DeVonta Smith scored twice before halftime. By the time Najee Harris landed from his hurdle of Notre Dame defensive back Nick McCloud, you knew how this was going to turn out.
The Irish didn’t have a chance. But, seriously, what about everybody else?
LSU won it last year with a one-of-kind season from Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, but the Tigers finished 5-5 this season and took a self-imposed bowl ban.
Oklahoma, next year’s challenger-in-waiting, is 0-4 in semifinal matchups.
Oregon is the only Pac-12 that has won a semifinal game, and that was against Florida State in the inaugural Playoff game. Cincinnati lost in the Peach Bowl to two-loss Georgia, a program still looking for its first national championship since 1980.
Neither the Bearcats nor Bulldogs would have beaten Alabama on this stage, or a quarterfinal stage. No. 5 Texas A&M, the first ream out, lost 52-24 to Alabama in the regular season. USC, Penn State, Michigan, Florida and Auburn aren’t there yet. either.
There is your answer: The problem is Notre Dame is the best challenger, even if you want to label them a fraud.
The Irish remain the best answer as the fourth-best program in college football — and they won’t make that leap until they can beat Ohio State, Clemson or Alabama in a bowl game. Including this year’s ACC championship game, Notre Dame is 0-6 against those schools in the postseason since the start of the BCS era.
Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have created a talent gap from everyone else, one that won’t be solved immediately by expansion to eight teams. It will be solved through recruiting, and a long game of catch-up. Kelly is still playing that long game, and he sees it for what it is.
In that sense, believe it or not, the Irish are ahead of the competition.
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