There are over 120 division one college football teams, and the Fighting Irish were one of four programs to make the College Football Playoffs. Head Coach Brian Kelly has proved he can consistently make the big game, but he has failed to end the 33-year title drought in South Bend. The Notre Dame Football season was full of highs and lows. Let us take one last look back at the unprecedented 2020 college football season.
Making the playoffs is hard
Notre Dame is one of the few schools with multiple playoff appearances. Yes, they do not hang banners down the Notre Dame Tunnel for playoff appearances but making it to the Rose Bowl against Alabama was a significant accomplishment. There is a clear top tier of college football with Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson. These programs have won 8 of the last 11 national titles and control recruiting.
Brian Kelly has the Irish at the top of tier-two. Programs such as Oklahoma and Georgia are consistently in the playoff hunt alongside Notre Dame. Fans certainly want to be in tier-one, but the Irish are better positioned for success than most teams throughout the country.
The Irish are far ahead of most blue-blood programs. Do you think the sky is falling in South Bend? Look at the other traditional powerhouses across the country, such as Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, and USC. I am willing to bet those programs would take Brian Kelly and Notre Dame’s successes these past several years.
Brian Kelly earned the 4th Playoff Spot
#5 Texas A & M and #8 Cincinnati did not deserve to be in the playoffs. Skeptics will say that the Irish should not be in the playoffs again, but Notre Dame held Alabama to their lowest offensive output since the 2018 national championship game. Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies lost to the Crimson Tide by 28-points and surrendered 52-points to Alabama in Tuscaloosa earlier in the season. Nick Saban may have nursed the lead against Notre Dame, but if it were not for a missed field goal and self-inflicted illegal motion penalty, the Fighting Irish could have made it a one-score contest.
The Playoff Committee made the right choice. Texas A & M went down to the wire with North Carolina, and the Tar Heels were missing their top two running backs. The Irish handled the Tar Heels by 14-points on the road. Conversely, the Cincinnati Bearcats lost their argument for the 4th spot with a loss to the Georgia Bulldogs. A 53-yard field goal was the difference in the Peach Bowl, and the Bearcats will surely want to prove they belong in 2021.
On a side note, Luke Fickell’s squad visits South Bend next fall in what will undoubtedly be one of the season’s major matchups.
Offense is dominating college football
Championships used to be won in the trenches. The last time the Fighting Irish played Alabama, college football was controlled by strong defenses and, more precisely, the defensive line. A few years ago, the best teams in football were known for stopping the run and getting sacks. Now, offenses are seeing who can get to 40 points the fastest.
Speed and skill positions are now the focal point. The Alabama Crimson Tide were averaging 50 points heading into the matchup with Notre Dame. In 2011, Les Miles and LSU defeated Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa by a 9 to 6 score in overtime. No one can question how much the sport has shifted recently.
Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State lead the recruiting rankings each year. Anyone who watched the playoffs understands how important speed and explosive plays have become in this new era of football. Notre Dame must improve recruiting, development, and the use of transfers.
Notre Dame has underutilized talent
Irish must maximize talent early on. The biggest disappointment of the 2021 season was the lack of depth on offense. Tommy Rees and Brian Kelly rarely let young players have an opportunity. Last season, the Irish failed to fully utilize players such as Lawrence Keys III, Chris Tyree, Jordan Johnson, Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr., and Xavier Watts.
Brian Kelly has always been hesitant to play underclassmen. Yes, I understand that Coach Kelly is a big fan of playing upperclassmen because of their experience and overall size, but skill position players can immediately make a difference. Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III may not have been 100% all season, but we may never know.
Countless moments last fall, I was watching various college football games, and I heard announcers say, “He is just a freshman or sophomore.” Not words Notre Dame fans hear that often, with a few rarities such as Michael Mayer.
The Irish failed to utilize Jordan Johnson all year. For comparison, Clemson Wide Receiver E.J. Williams, the #69 overall recruit according to 247 sports in 2020, had 24 receptions for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns. At the same time, Jordan Johnson for the Irish was the #37 overall recruit on 247 sports and did not have a catch all season. Unless something was going on that Brian Kelly did not discuss, there is no reason the freshman star did not get more playing time in 2020.
I am happy with the season overall, but I am starting to become complacent. If this were year three of the Brian Kelly Era, I would be more content. Last season was Brian Kelly’s 11th year coaching in South bend. Back in 2012, I thought he was just getting started, and there was a national championship on the way. Now, this deep into his tenure at Notre Dame, has Coach Kelly reached his ceiling?
Maybe the Notre Dame head coach will be like Nebraska’s famous coach, Tom Osborne, who did not win his first championship for the Cornhuskers until his 22nd season in Lincoln. Osborne then won three titles in four years, although that is unprecedented for coaches.
Notre Dame is great but not elite. The Irish have done a tremendous job of competing for national titles under Brian Kelly, and honestly, the program is in a terrific spot right now. Of course, the only hardware that matters is the College Football Playoff trophy, not a Camping World Bowl trophy, but the program is a lot closer to winning that title than in decades prior.
But I think if Kelly can continue to put together a great coaching staff and find a way to take the recruiting of high school players and transfers to the next level, he can finally win a national championship.