Notre Dame Football: Final Thoughts on the 2020 Season

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.

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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.

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2020 Conclusion

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.

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16 Comments

  1. ND absolutely deserved to be in the playoffs. Others had arguments but Bama was winning either way.
    Getting blown out in these games in not unique to ND either. The avg margin of victory in the semi’s has been over 21 pts. Semis and title games combined have an avg margin of almost 20 points. Even the 3 programs running CFB have been blown out. Clemson has been crushed twice, Bama lost by 28, tOSU lost 31-0 and get run the other night.
    Regardless, the same 3 will be back next year and the 4th spot will be window dressing.

    1. This has to be the longest post “Burgy” has ever composed!

      He’s stating facts, so I can’t blame him for trying.

      Now we wait for “david” to pounce.

    2. The argument “Anyone would have lost to Alabama any way, so what’s the difference?” is either just being provocative, or in your case, utterly stupid and blind.

      The public exposure, media attention, positive recruiting momentum, financial payday, and long-term motivational impact it has on those involved are ALL crucial reasons why being objective, equitable and merit-based in selecting who makes the playoff is necessary.

      Cincinnati might easily have been run over by Alabama. But what would being there have meant to its program for years to come? And what would that program have done with that money, that notoriety, that media attention? It boggles the mind how material such a thing would be to a Cincinnati or an Iowa State, no-name programs that are improving and dreaming of competing.

      And as far as college fans just getting to see nothing but blowouts because Alabama is simply “that much better than everyone else”…well, ‘everyone else’ should be g.d. ashamed of that. Especially ND, a program that never used to take a back seat to anyone, let alone Alabama.

      ND is now a fading shadow of a myth.

      There are about 10 teams that are making serious moves to try and become national football champions. And ND is not one of them….let alone one of the final 4.

      1. I think “Burgy” misses the point that all the big-3 have suffered defeats at the hands of one of the others recently. Clemson trounced Bama, Ohio St. just trounced Clemson, and Bama beat up Ohio St. That happens when big boys fight.

        OK and ND, however, seem to be the punching bags of these three in the POs. That’s what “Burgy” and other on here want to desperately ignore.

        ND is trying to get better. Too little, too late. Besides, no matter what BK and company try, it won’t go anywhere without the administration getting serious about winning. Showing up to big games and cashing fat checks isn’t enough. You have to be competitive and actually win some of them.

        However, whether you agree or not, “david,” at least “Burgy” is trying of late to engage in a manner that requires a serious response. It’s not his usual drive-by BS. I’m not giving him a “high five” or anything like that. I just appreciate when we can have mature discussions rather than exchange mere truculence, ad hominem attacks, childish name calling, etc.

      2. SFR: It’s an act of desperation…which considering this is just a stupid messageboard, is truly pathetic.

        Rhonda has had a rough go, now getting consistently called out for being a bully and a troll, and she wants to restore her wounded self-confidence enough to return to imagining she’s the main attraction around here, respected and admired.

        So far, the only credit or recognition she has gotten for it is from you.
        As I wish ND football would someday learn to do, this is when you keep pounding them, and end the game.

  2. Excellent post, MIchael Owens, and good replies/comments.
    ND holding Bama to 31, three TDs less than Ohio State scored against them, despite Bama without their Heisman WR for most of the second half vs. tOSU suggests NDs D’ was hardly the problem this season. Spare me the “Saban and Sark took their foot off the gas” BS. Some will argue endlessly to diminish anything ND accomplished this year, and/or every year. This in no way suggests I’m satisfied with BKs O’ performances vs. the better teams. I’m not. Are there arguments for Cincinnati and A&M having been considered for the playoffs? Definitely. Like every year, at least six teams deserve a shot. Which is why giving the top two teams a bye, and letting the other four of six play for a spot in the final four is long overdue- this year being the best example- but that’s for another day.
    But timing, that is, when you play an excellent team, is key. When very good teams play each other, especially in consecutive games, when you play that team often determines the final spread. Cases in point: Clemson v. ND 1, Clemson v. ND 2, tOSU v. Clemson, and tOSU v. Bama. Clemson had key injuries in ND Clemson 1, but it’s the game ND had been primed for all season; Clemson got its revenge game 2, the same as tOSU did vs. Clemson avenging the previous season’s elimination of them. But underwhelming games from Clemson v. tOSU, and then tOSU v. Bama suggests the difficulty to maximize the energy and performance after leaving it all on the field the game before, especially when these elite teams all season long play so few games v. teams that can actually challenge the inevitable outcome. Looking ahead, there’s a stretch in NDs upcoming season that is beyond challenging, and duplicating a ten win season with a new OL, and missing key defenders from this team, will be a challenging goal.

  3. Alabama’s play made this season almost pointless, and ND making the playoffs didn’t help.
    That an ‘doubly exposed’ pretender ND could still finish ranked ahead of surging Oklahoma is a testament to what ND football is:
    still wielding “political” sway, but competitively irrelevant.

  4. The modern game of college football is indeed about having a high-scoring O.

    The D needs to make just enough stops to keep the other guy under fifty.

    STs need to just be good enough to flip the field position, but would help if it provided points off returns on KOs and PRs. Punters need to rediscover the “coffin corner” and your kicker needs to be close to automatic from under 50 yards (points being a must on every drive!).

    Right now, of those three points above, ND has only a D at best. The O is mediocre at best and the STs are worse.

    Finally, BK is just not an elite coach. The heavyweights all have elite coaches and assistants. ND may have one good assistant at a given time but never really a great staff from top to bottom. The play-calling on O is stale and Polian seems to spend no time on STs work.

    You can’t be competitive in today’s game without both elite players and coaches. ND is lacking woefully in both of those areas. Until such a time as the powers that be in South Bend get serious about winning and not just showing up to big games, things won’t change, no matter even if Saban were the HC at ND!

  5. Interesting article on the fivethirtyeight website:

    The College Football Playoff Committee is Answering the Wrong Question (Jan. 8/21)

    “…According to this model —-which ranked teams by their share of outcomes as *THE* best team in 1 million simulations run using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) as of Dec.22 — there was about an 85 percent chance that Alabama was the best team in the country before the playoff, which sounds about right. The next tier down included Clemson and Ohio State, each of which claimed between a 5 and 10 percent chance of being the nation’s best team.

    The third tier of schools was where this model significantly diverged from the CFP rankings. Sure enough, Notre Dame was not fourth most likely to be the best team — that distinction fell to unbeaten Cincinnati (No. 8 in the rankings), followed closely by Big 12 champion Oklahoma (No. 6). Meanwhile, Notre Dame failed to distinguish itself from Texas A&M and Florida, which similarly had solid seasons but were not in strong contention for being considered the best team. Ninth-ranked Georgia and 10th-ranked Iowa State were both more likely to be the best than Notre Dame….”
    ————————————————
    So…in non-stats geek terms: ND was an undeserving pick for the playoff.
    Alabama did what the model said it was very likely to do. But other teams were more deserving to be there — getting the national media exposure, the bigtime money, and the highly likely beat down —- than ND was.

  6. A very interesting article on the fivethirtyeight website:

    The College Football Playoff Committee is Answering the Wrong Question — Jan.8/21

    “…According to this model —-which ranked teams by their share of outcomes as *THE* best team in 1 million simulations run using ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) as of Dec.22 — there was about an 85 percent chance that Alabama was the best team in the country before the playoff, which sounds about right. The next tier down included Clemson and Ohio State, each of which claimed between a 5 and 10 percent chance of being the nation’s best team.

    The third tier of schools was where this model significantly diverged from the CFP rankings. Sure enough, Notre Dame was not fourth most likely to be the best team — that distinction fell to unbeaten Cincinnati (No. 8 in the rankings), followed closely by Big 12 champion Oklahoma (No. 6). Meanwhile, Notre Dame failed to distinguish itself from Texas A&M and Florida, which similarly had solid seasons but were not in strong contention for being considered the best team. Ninth-ranked Georgia and 10th-ranked Iowa State were both more likely to be the best than Notre Dame….”
    ———————————————-
    So…in non-stats geek terms: ND was a uniquely undeserving pick for the playoff. Several other teams were more deserving to get rewarded with at least a shot.
    Per the modeling, Alabama was the prohibitive favorite to win no matter who they faced…..and that’s exactly how it played out. And that’s FAIR.
    But depriving a team of at least the chance that they earned is not.

    1. Sorry all for the duplicate post. The board did not post either one of them, and after looong waits, I just figured it didn’t like the embedded web link…..

  7. Offenses do rule the day. Even Kelly said last year to beat Alabama,Clemson and Ohio State we need to put a Will Fuller on the field with a Michael Floyd. I believe it can be done Charlie Weis did it with Jimmy Clausen throwing to them. I believe and many of you may disagree with me but if Notredame this year had Sam Howell and North Carolinas skilled receivers running backs to go with Mayer Kren William’s, Tyree Notredame could have beaten or went toe to toe with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.

  8. Recruiting is not the problem. Our players are not the problem.

    It’s all coaching. And as Michael points out, underutilizing talent is probably the biggest coaching problem we have outside of offensive strategy. Did we recruit guys like Chase Claypool, Myles Boykin, Jordan Johnson, etc to come in and be possession based receivers in a “ball control” offense? Did we recruit Phil Jurkovec to come in and dink and dunk for high percentage throws the whole game? Are these the skillsets of our big recruits? No. Why does Kelly not adjust strategy to the talent he brings in? Why does a guy like Kyle Hamilton who was our best safety last year by far not start the entire season and only get half the reps but puts up better numbers than our other safeties who got way more snaps? I mean Ben Skowronek…cmon man. He played hard and all but my guess is our freshman that sat the bench probably could have outplayed Skowronek this year. The problem is that based on past history, we probably won’t know what our freshmen receivers can even do for another 2 years (e.g. Boykin/McKinley). God help them if they drop the ball once or twice as they won’t ever have their number called again (see Tremble this year).

    It’s frustrating seeing all of these top programs just reloading year after year and not having much of a dropoff. Us on the other hand…since we barely play any of our recruits even when we are up by 30 to start the 2nd half, they get no in game experience and have a larger learning curve. Nothing can replicate in game experience and you really hinder your young guys but not rotating them in, especially against teams you know you will win before even getting off the bus. Another reason to rotate them is to really see what they’ve got in meaningful game time. Maybe Jordan Johnson would stink it up on the field. But what if he catches a crossing route, breaks a tackle, flashes great speed and takes a long one to the house. Hmmm…maybe he needs to be in the rotation. We will never know.

    I have no faith Kelly will ever change.

  9. Yes the formula in college football is good defense paired with 50 point offenses yjay can score almost every position. Notredames receivers might be really good but we dont know because Kelly refuses to play them. Yes I understand injuries and traits, suspensions but even when Austin Lenzy Jordan Johnson,Watts,Keys played they hardly were ever targeted. Was the problem Reese,Kelly,DelAlexander,Book or any combination of the above. I know Kelly wont do this but I would like to see him add an experienced big time offensive coordinator and pair him up with Tommy. I feel Tommy did a very good job this year with the limitations Book has and the lack of great speed with the outside receivers. Oregeron brought in Joe Brady a young talent and let him work with Emminger an experienced o coordinator. Gus Malzahn and Tom Herman were great o coordinators and both won national championships and Ohio State and Auburn. Ohio State brought in KevinWilson after Indiana fired him. Saban brought in Kiffin Sark.

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