Disappointment. That’s what it is more than anything else.
Notre Dame entered the Cotton Bowl as 13 point underdogs, so going in the idea of losing isn’t exactly farfetched. But, if you’ve watched them all year, as most of us have, we know what their best game is. We know what they are capable of doing. And that wasn’t it.
The problem is, I could sub out the words “Cotton Bowl” above and insert the Orange Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl and the rest would still be true. For the third time in the Kelly era, Notre Dame brought a very good team to a major bowl game and left looking like an 8-4 club. This has happened across seven seasons, different coaching staffs, different players, and different opponents. There is one common denominator and that is Brian Kelly, the one in charge of the whole operation.
The only thing that matters now is how this gets solved. Everyone knows the stat by now, he’s 22-4 since the debacle of 2016, and he returns a team that should win double digit games again next season. His program has been built and he was excellent in building it. The job, however, is not complete and he would be foolish to think it is. And to be honest, I don’t get any inkling he thinks his program has arrived. He knows where the failures have been. Kelly went through a soul search after his team went 4-8, and he needs another one after 30-3.
Success In The Regular Season
One of the most common phrases I saw postgame was “Notre Dame was just completely overmatched and couldn’t compete.” I don’t agree with that. Notre Dame has competed, and won, against similar rosters. But, it’s only come in the regular season.
- In 2012 Notre Dame was double digit dogs going to Oklahoma and beat them 30-13.
- In 2014 the Irish went to defending national champion and #2 Florida State and was within a controversial (see: terrible) offensive pass interference penalty of taking them down.
- In 2015 they lost to national runner up Clemson by two on the road, with a failed two point conversion in the final seconds
- In 2017 they lost to national runner up Georgia by one, fumbling with just over a minute left. They were #4 in 247’s team talent rankings.
- In 2017 they beat 11 win USC 49-14, a team who at the time was #3 overall in the team talent rankings.
- In 2018 they beat Michigan 24-17, #8 in the team talent rankings.
- For reference, Notre Dame is 10th in the team talent rankings, Clemson was #6.
Notre Dame also has some bad losses in there, to Miami last season most notably. The point is, they can compete and win against teams with similar rosters to Clemson this season. It isn’t that they are overmatched in those games. And Kelly has shown the ability to get his team ready to go and come up with a game plan that can win. If you add up the scores to all those games and add Miami, Notre Dame is +11. In the three marquee bowl games, Notre Dame is -69. They are nothing like what they have been when they play in those games.
Where To Go From Here
Obviously this is the question for Kelly, and the only one that really needs answering today and in the offseason. There is a chance they get back into a big game next season, if not the playoffs. The offense is back, minus Dexter Williams, with a possible upgrade at quarterback (more on that later), and a defense that will lose Coney, Tranquill, and Tillery, but perhaps retain Julian Love and all of the defensive ends.
They’ve recruited very well on the lines, but they don’t have anyone who is of the Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross mold at receiver, two top 50 players. In last nights game in particular, the lack of that big play punch hurt them, as there wasn’t a 50 yard touchdown just sitting out there for them whenever they felt the offense was scuffling (and Clemson was scuffling). That could continue to be a problem offensively, especially with Book at quarterback who hadn’t thrown a good deep ball all season and missed a touchdown again last night.
Overall, they need to recruit better across the board. They are currently top 10, good enough to make it, not good enough to be favored, which is the common denominator across most of those games up top. They are never favored, always needing a huge performance to compete.
As it is, it’s another offseason of the same conversation with the same questions, and at best a year away from being able to answer them. Disappointing. Just disappointing.