Notre Dame has evolved since recent playoff losses, but so have the elite

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The miscalculation for those who either hope/fear Notre Dame’s second College Football Playoff appearance turns out to be a program referendum is that top-ranked Alabama is not a stationary target. 

Notre Dame’s obsession since a 42-14 defrocking by Alabama in the BCS National Championship eight seasons ago, and its mantra since a 30-3 smothering from Clemson in a 2018 playoff loss, has been “closing the gap” on this generation’s postseason ogres. 

Friday’s semifinal at the relocated Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas, seems like a convenient checkpoint for No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) to gauge that, particularly in light of the two disparate outcomes against playoff semifinalist Clemson this season. 

Where the algorithm fails is that No. 1 Alabama (11-0) has been closing the gap, too, since the teams’ last meeting in 2012. 

Notre Dame and coach Brian Kelly are in select company now that the Fighting Irish have qualified for the College Football Playoff for the second time, but they're still a heavy underdog against No. 1 Alabama in Friday's semifinal.

On history. 

Since that coronation, Alabama has added national titles in the 2015 and ’17 seasons, made six of the seven playoff fields and sent an FBS-high 72 players to the NFL via the draft, more than half of those first- or second-rounders. 

The Crimson Tide hasn’t just recruited. It’s hoarded, accruing five more No. 1 classes, per Rivals.com. 

Perhaps the most imposing notion for the rest of the college football world to digest is that the man considered the best coach of this generation — Nick Saban, at age 69 — is getting better. 

“Alabama plays very differently than the 2012 Alabama team, because you have to play differently in college football these days.” said Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News, who’s been covering Crimson Tide football since 1982. “You have to score more points. 

“Nick simultaneously hates that, but no matter what he hates, he loves winning more than he hates having to change. He will change, because he loves to win.” 

So Saban and the Crimson Tide have, Hurt said. They are more athletic on defense and far more diverse on offense, where they once tried to grind down opponents. 

“That’s what separates the coaches at the very pinnacle of the game from everybody else,” Hurt said. “Not only do they have success, but they don’t become prisoners of their own success and preclude themselves from having even more success.” 

Whether the Irish, as the biggest underdog in playoff history (20 points), can find a path to its 10th toppling of a No. 1 in program history and advance to the Jan. 11 title game, the long-term takeaway worth holding onto is that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is evolving as well. 

Not just from his first season in 2010, when parading around with a Sun Bowl trophy at the end of an eight-win season felt like a milestone. And not just from the transformative offseason after a 4-8 divot in 2016 that galvanized a 43-7 response in 50 games since. 

Kelly has evolved since 2019. Since the September COVID-19 team outbreak that threatened to swallow the season. Since yesterday. 

“Open-minded people stay abreast with what’s going on around them,” said Rick Minter, a longtime Kelly confidant who had two tours of duty as ND’s defensive coordinator. 

Minter said Kelly has adapted by embracing change — listening to those who do things differently — and has more or less reinvented himself. 

“Maybe all of us get in a little bit of a rut at times of our own behavior, only to be reminded of what’s another way it can be done,” he said. “And I think he found that formula at Notre Dame.” 

Where it’s brought Kelly and Notre Dame is a place only four of the other 130 FBS programs have been so far, a second appearance at the playoff party. 

Only this year’s three other semifinalists — Alabama and Sugar Bowl combatants Ohio State and Clemson — and Big 12 heavyweight Oklahoma can also claim that. 

Notre Dame arrives Friday with a ball-control model of X’s and O’s that looks more like what Saban used to do than what Kelly ran before his hiring by Notre Dame 11 years ago. 

Most notably, his 2009 Cincinnati team that nearly played Alabama for the national championship, was dead last in time of possession. And Kelly was darn proud of it. 

“That was when Brian won by outhustling everybody, out-conditioning everybody.” Minter said. “Now Brian sits back and says, ‘What needs to work?’ ” 

In 2020, Notre Dame ranks eighth out of 127 teams. 

“There’s a lot of ways to skin a cat,” Minter said. 

Notre Dame’s approach certainly lacks the offensive opulence of the other three teams in the playoff field. It was good enough to get the Irish into the playoff field, but is it a philosophy that can win games at the playoff level?