Searching for Big Game Brian

Harrumph Notre Dame can’t win big games harrumph.

The Notre Dame athletic department’s social media game is, in my view, inconsistent. Sometimes you get Josh Adams stiff-arming a Trojan warrior while galloping alongside a magical horsey, sometimes you get winking wordplay to honor a new record holder, and sometimes you get brand partnerships with fucking sticks of deodorant. I guess they’re doing their best to teach us that you can’t win ‘em all. But the odds are always in favor of at least one schmuck jumping into the mentions to point out that, HEY, you guys haven’t actually won a title in a long time! Knock it off with the dang fancy uniforms!


The concept of mutual exclusivity evading this poor person’s (and 22 others’??) brain aside, we can’t analyze Notre Dame football and ignore the Irish’s recent record in games versus big time opponents. It’s the biggest knock against Brian Kelly and one that demands an honest accounting. So let’s do that (check out the data here).

In BK’s tenure as head coach, dating back to 2010, the Irish have faced 36 ranked opponents, and are an even 18-18 — sounds okay, but it doesn’t sound great, especially considering that ND has also been ranked in 80% of those matchups. Home and away records mirror each other, standing at 10-4 in South Bend and vice versa on the road (neutral sites have been, well, neutral, as the Irish are 4-4 in that case).

The inherent and obvious paradox in analyzing these ranked matchups is that when the good guys win, their opponent has to lose, thereby knocking them off course and hurting their future prospects. Same for when the Irish lose — the victor picks up a (probable) quality win and positive momentum, brightening the outlook for the rest of their season. Unsurprisingly, the data backs this up.

On eight different occasions, ND has beaten a ranked team only to see them finish the season unranked, thereby diminishing that win’s generally accepted value. Lest we forget, 2018 Stanford was a #7 team in late September. The Music City Bowl win against a talented LSU, the one that set the stage for a playoff-caliber 2015 season, knocked the Tigers clean out of the rankings to end the year. Meanwhile, only two ranked teams that beat the Irish ended up outside of the top 25. And while the average gameday ranking of the teams ND lost to was 11, that jumps all the way to 7 when we switch to end of year standings.

So maybe the good news is the Irish have the ability to land knockout blows, exposing previously overvalued squads for who they really are (shoutout to 2017 USC for recovering from that annihilation to somehow win their conference, I guess). The bad news, though, is probably what you expected. In ten games against teams that were ranked in the top ten on gameday, the Irish have only three wins to speak of (Stanford ‘18, MSU ‘12, Oklahoma ‘12). It’s even worse using end of year rankings — we needed an overtime goal line stand to secure the only win over a team that finished the season in the top ten (Stanford ‘12, duh), compared to eleven losses. Not…great…Bob…

We all remember the close calls that could have altered this narrative — Georgia ‘17, FSU ‘14, Clemson/Stanford ‘15 (it’s funny and sad that we lost to the numbers two, three, and four final teams that year) (it’s also funny and very sad that in the program’s worst season in over a decade, ND only faced two ranked squads, a trash Sparty team and an extremely good USC one). There’s no reason to distrust what you saw with your own eyes — the pick play debacle, Terry Godwin making the best catch he’ll ever make, a personal foul penalty snatching defeat from the jaws of victory on Stanford’s final drive — the Irish were truly in a lot of these games right to the end…which, yeah, is no excuse for losing them. Both can be true.

The honest to goodness truth is that there’s no formula to suddenly winning the majority of these games, because college football is a freakshow of a sport. That the Irish under Brian Kelly are at 50% against ranked opponents feels almost a bit too on the nose. What it really comes down to is the stuff everyone talks about all the time. Recruit better! Keep talented assistants around! Take advantage of good luck! That’s what’s happening right now with this football program, and there’s simply no reason to not trust in that process, not after a playoff appearance. That doesn’t mean they will ever be what Clemson or Alabama are, and it doesn’t mean I won’t get upset the next time ND loses to a good team. It means if you build a program a certain way, good things will necessarily come. Enjoy it. Let it happen.

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