The last time Notre Dame won a national championship was back in 1988 over the West Virginia Mountaineers. Many thought it would be the first of many titles under Lou Holtz. However, 1988 was the sole championship under the legendary coach, and Notre Dame has been in a 32-year drought. Under Brian Kelly, the Irish have witnessed two undefeated regular seasons, but have yet to win the “big game” and add to the program’s 11 national championships. The question remains, when can Notre Dame win its 12th national championship?
Looking back at the Kelly Era
2012 Football Season
Irish finish regular season 12-0. The 2012 season highlighted one of the best seasons in program history. Highlighted by several close calls, the Manti Te’o led Irish were able to find a way to win each contest. Victories at Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, at Oklahoma, and at USC, helped propel the team to South Beach for the title game.
National Championship Game against Alabama. This was only the third year for Brian Kelly in South Bend, and his team was outmatched when they faced Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Many in the media had fun at Notre Dame’s expense, but the Irish were without a doubt one of the top five best teams in the country that year, the only program that stood in Alabama’s path were the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship.
2015 Irish visit Death Valley
Irish fall short 24 to 22. Notre Dame traveled to Death Valley for their 5th game of the season. Although the Irish were down early, they mounted a major comeback in the 4th quarter. Late in the game, Brian Kelly was forced to go for an unsuccessful two-point conversion. This win helped catapult Dabo Swinney’s Tigers to the elite group of college football, and they have not looked back since.
The Clemson Tigers would go on to lose the National Championship Game to Alabama by five points. But the close call the Irish had against Clemson had Notre Dame fans with many questions. Such as, what if Brian VanGorder was not the defensive coordinator? Or, what if the roster was healthy in 2015?
2017 Georgia visits South Bend
Irish prove they can compete. Yes, there are no moral victories for a blue blood like Notre Dame, however, this matchup proved that the Irish could compete at the highest level. A late sack-fumble with less than 2 minutes left in the game secured a one-point victory for the Bulldogs.
Georgia lost the title in OT. The Georgia Bulldogs would go on to play Alabama for the national championship. At one point, it looked like they had the game secure, but Tua Tagovailoa led the Tide back in overtime. In retrospect, if the Irish lost to Georgia by one-point, there was no gap or lack of talent.
2018 Regular Season
3rd undefeated regular season for Kelly. Notre Dame started the season with a massive win over Michigan, but under Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the team labored against teams like Ball State and Vanderbilt. Sensing a change in personnel was crucial; Coach Kelly took a calculated risk with Ian Book. The gamble paid off, and the Irish offense excelled under the more accurate QB.
The 2018 football team became the 3rd undefeated regular season for Brian Kelly at the FBS level.
Cotton Bowl Collapse
Unexpected Cotton Bowl Outcome. The Irish made their first College Football Playoff appearance under Kelly and the second major postseason game (2012 title). However, the Irish ran into a dominant Clemson Tigers team. The game was close at the start, but Clemson pulled away with perhaps the best defensive line in the history of college football.
Julian Love injury setback Irish. An injury to Notre Dame’s elite cornerback Julian Love opened the flood gates for three touchdowns against backup cornerback Donte Vaughn. Not to say the outcome would have changed, but the margin of victory would not have been as great. Weeks later, the Clemson Tigers finished 15-0 with a 28-point win over the Alabama Crimson Tide, a defeat greater than the Irish faced.
National Title Outlook
Irish recruiting taking steps backward. According to 247 sports, the Irish have finished 10th (2018), 16th (2019), and 17th (2020) respectfully. Notre Dame’s rankings are taking steps in the wrong direction. Now, one could write a book on recruiting, and certainly, the Irish have had a lot of success these past several seasons, including double-digit wins in four of the last five years. So, there is no reason to push the panic button just yet.
However, examine the teams who the Irish have struggled against and compare their rankings. Clemson, Georgia, and Alabama always are at the top of the list, and this allows them a lot more error on the field with these stockpiles of talent.
Strength and Conditioning second to none. Coach Matt Balis is one of the best strength coaches in the country. All the top programs across the country have elite strength coaches. But as mentioned earlier, even though the Irish do not get as many five-stars recruits as other programs, they usually have some of the most NFL Draft picks each Spring.
Nick Saban also hired former ND strength Coach David Ballou who was in South Bend with Balis in 2017, if that shows how “on par” the Irish have become.
Scheduling gives Irish opportunity. Notre Dame always has one of the toughest schedules in the country, last year the team traveled to Michigan and Georgia. In 2020 Brian Kelly will face two elite opponents in Wisconsin and Clemson.
The lack of a conference championship will always give the Irish one less data point than other schools, but many programs have made the playoffs without playing in a conference title game, including the 2018 Notre Dame team.
I was scrolling through the internet during quarantine, and I read that legendary Nebraska Coach, Tom Osborne, won three national titles at Nebraska (1994, 1995, 1997). I already knew that, but what I did not realize was he had been Head Coach of the Cornhuskers for 21 seasons before he won his first championship. Osborne also finished his career at Nebraska with a 12-13 bowl record.
Why is this relevant? Brian Kelly has been in South Bend for a decade now and has been extremely close to greatness, while each season adjusting his strategy. There is still hope in South Bend. So, when will the Irish bring home a national title? My heart tells me that it will be during the Kelly Era. Coach Brian Kelly has put some much into his coaching career and just needs one special season to put it all together.