The Irish are just one win away from the National Championship Game. The Clemson Tigers, a heavy favorite, are standing in their path. Brian Kelly will face the greatest challenge of his coaching career on December 29th at the Cotton Bowl. It’s up to the players and coaching staff to change the narrative and restore the dominant tradition that once accompanied Notre Dame Football.
Recent Notre Dame Bowl Victories
2014 Music City Bowl. After the loss to Florida State on the road, the Notre Dame season spiraled out of control. A Bowl game gave the Irish an opportunity to salvage their season against a top-tier SEC school. At that time the Tigers were led by head coach Les Miles who already won a national title and competed in another.
As usual, the Fighting Irish were heavy underdogs against the 23rd ranked Tigers. Led by quarterbacks Malik Zaire and Everett Golson, Notre Dame took the game down to the wire. Kyle Brindza’s last second field goal sealed the Irish 31-28 victory, propelling Notre Dame into the successful 2015 campaign.
2017 Citrus Bowl. Once again, the Irish were slowing down at the end of the year. Coming into this New Year’s matchup, Notre Dame had lost severely to Miami and Stanford. Playing the resurgent LSU Tigers in the Citrus Bowl would allow Brian Kelly and the Irish to end the season on a high note and give them momentum heading into the 2018 season.
Like the 2014 game, Notre Dame and LSU played in a nail-biter. This game witnessed the emergence of Ian Book as an elite passer. Coming off the bench and into the game, Book’s performance propelled Notre Dame into a 10-win season and started the quarterback controversy that would last the entire off-season.
Overlooked Notre Dame Wins
Irish rarely get credit for signature wins. It appears every time Notre Dame beats a highly ranked college football program, that same team is no longer good because they lost to the Irish. For instance, last season Notre Dame beat USC 49-14 through absolute domination. But the Irish appeared to get little credit for the major win. However, USC went on to have an 11-win season and play Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, where the Buckeyes beat them by 18 points less than the Irish.
Notre Dame beats Michigan on opening night. Until the last weekend of the regular season, the Irish had the best win in college football. Yet many people seemed to pretend that in just 2 months Michigan was much better than Notre Dame because they were beating up on weak teams such as Michigan State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Even though Notre Dame was missing their best running back and quarterback, people seemed to forget the Irish had improved even more than the Wolverines.
Recent Notre Dame Bowl Losses
2012 National Championship Game vs. Alabama. Perhaps the biggest reason for skepticism towards the Irish in recent memory was their last national championship appearance. The average sports fan typically relates this game to Notre Dame Football when discussing the Irish, whether it’s fair or not. Not only were the Irish beaten, they were dominated by Alabama. Then again 99% of college football has been dominated by Nick Saban – they have won 5 of the last 9 championships.
Nevertheless, at that time Notre Dame was ahead of schedule. Were they one of the best teams in the country? Absolutely. Were the Irish on the same level as Alabama and Georgia that season? No. This year’s Irish team is unequivocally a better unit and have the hindsight of 2012 to learn from past failures.
2015 Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State. The Fiesta Bowl was another monumental matchup against one of the greatest coaches in college football history, Urban Meyer. It’s hard to get a bearing on how the Irish matched up against the Buckeyes when they were essentially playing with half their backups. Not to say Notre Dame would have won with all their starters, but the game would have been closer than 16 points.
Although fans of opposing teams likely didn’t know the extent of Notre Dame’s injuries and only looked at the final score.
Key Regular Season Losses
Miami 2017. With another huge opportunity in South Beach, the Irish were destroyed by the Miami Hurricanes. Although the Hurricanes lost 2 games in the upcoming weeks, I still believe that was one of the most electric environments in college football. The Miami players were amped up beyond belief and shocked the Irish. Unfortunately, this was another game Notre Dame lost with an extremely large audience.
Clemson 2015. With another chance to prove the cynics wrong, Notre Dame came up 2 points short in Death Valley. This game however does give the Irish hope for the Cotton Bowl matchup. If Notre Dame only lost to the Tigers by 2 points on the road with a Brian VanGorder Defense, certainly they can compete again this time around.
Proving Experts wrong in 2018
LSU ranked ahead of Notre Dame. Remember that week where the LSU Tigers were ranked ahead of the Irish? Even though Notre Dame was undefeated and had beaten them earlier in the year at the Citrus Bowl. Everything was restored once the Tigers were trounced by Alabama, but nevertheless that was just a prime example of the Irish being overlooked.
Awful Michigan argument. Late in the season many experts were arguing that the Wolverines should be ranked ahead of Notre Dame because they were playing better. However, Notre Dame beat them head to head. The Irish had also beaten Northwestern easily by 10 points. While Michigan trailed by 17 points to the Wildcats and won by 3 points at the end of the game.
It only took a 23-point destruction of the Wolverines to finally shut up Desmond Howard.
Beating the Elite Programs. Notre Dame didn’t face as many ranked teams as they typically do, but that had nothing to do with scheduling. Jack Swarbrick scheduled games against some of the best programs in the country. These matchups were at home, on the road, and several neutral sites. The Irish faced some of the top tier programs in recent history; Florida State, Stanford, USC, Virginia Tech, and Michigan. It was completely out of Notre Dame’s control a lot of these schools were having down seasons.
The Underdog Role
Clemson is currently a 13.5-point favorite. Notre Dame is typically favored against most teams on their schedule. But when it comes to the marquee matchups, the Irish are overlooked. I expected the Irish to be an underdog, but by almost two touchdowns? That is disrespectful.
Clemson is fortunate to be undefeated. The Tigers could have lost on the road at Texas A & M if it wasn’t for a fumble on the goal line by the Aggies. A game they only won by 2 points. Against the Syracuse Orange the Tigers trailed almost the entire game (they were getting dominated long before Trevor Lawrence was injured).
Clemson went on to beat Syracuse at home by 4 points, a team the Irish beat by 33 points. I do understand that Dabo Swinney’s Tigers weren’t playing their best football during those games, but they weren’t a dominate team all season. The Tigers had closer calls than Notre Dame did during the season.
Can the Irish flip the Script?
Yes. But it is not going to be easy. Remember when Notre Dame Basketball faced the Kentucky Wildcats in the elite 8? Everyone said the Irish would get destroyed. However, the Irish went toe-to-toe with one of the greatest teams in college basketball history and let a victory slip away.
Recall when Notre Dame Women’s Basketball with all their injuries was supposed to get destroyed by the UCONN earlier this year? But instead Arike Ogunbowale upset the Huskies in overtime. None of the experts gave the Irish a chance in that matchup either.
Getting back to football, the Fighting Irish can upset Clemson. Notre Dame will need a complete game on December 29th. This game needs to be a culmination of Brian Kelly’s career as a coach and his time in South Bend. If the Irish can play a mistake free football game and put pressure on true-freshman Trevor Lawrence, they have a great shot at making it to San Francisco for the National Championship Game.