Don’t Fear The Reaper

It’s a weird time to be a Notre Dame football fan. Is it a very good time, the best in recent memory by any objective standard? Yes, but undeniably a weird one as well. Each Brian Kelly team that’s completed an undefeated regular season has felt like a better, more competent iteration than the last, and yet the gap between the Irish and college football’s standard-bearers doesn’t feel all that different than it did eight years ago. That this is still the case even after a win over #1, the best Notre Dame football moment in ages, only adds to that uncanniness. If #13 North Carolina manages to knock off #5 Texas A&M in the upcoming Orange Bowl, the Irish might have notched their two best wins according to end of season ranking in those undefeated regular seasons (Stanford finished seventh in 2012). Deep breaths, everything is in fact pretty cool, but it does sometimes feel like we’re carrying buckets of water at the bottom of the ocean.

I think the way to approach Notre Dame football right now is a selective mix of optimism and nihilism — we’re allowed to choose our own adventure, after all. Obviously, general sentiment is tilting towards the latter, seeing as the Irish are matched with an Alabama juggernaut whose average margin of victory through 11 games (4 of those being ranked wins) is 30 points. Yikes. A certain level of emotional detachment come Friday is advisable, if practically unattainable. I will note that as untouchable and inevitable as Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide often feel, they haven’t actually completed an undefeated season since 2009. Past results don’t dictate the future, sure, but that goes both ways — Notre Dame’s major bowl game struggles aren’t destiny, either.

Much of the consternation surrounding the Irish centers on those major bowl struggles — I am obligated to specifically note “major bowl” struggles, because “big game” struggles would be unfair (the Irish have laid eggs against a few of these teams in recent years, sure, but good-to-great Clemson, North Carolina, Michigan, Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Michigan State, Stanford, Iowa State, Virginia Tech, NC State, Navy, Temple, Syracuse, etc. etc. teams can provide firsthand evidence in our favor). To argue that Notre Dame has uncharacteristically struggled even in bowl games would be incorrect, having closed out up-and-down campaigns with a couple tough wins over LSU and a dominating effort over playoff committee darling Iowa State a year ago to the day.

The Irish have simply had the misfortune to face a genuine murderers’ row of opponents in years when they’ve reached the sport’s biggest stages. Makes sense — it’s not unheard of or unfair to play great teams in big games — but in 2012, 2015, 2018, and now 2020, ND’s opponents have finished (current result obviously pending) 1, 1, 3, and 1 in SP+, the one outlier being the lowly national champion Clemson Tigers, the first team to finish 15-0 since the nineteenth century. I don’t really know how to explain it other than luck of the draw, some perverse karmic anti-luck of the Irish, who knows. But any criticism of Brian Kelly’s performance in these games — and there certainly are legitimate criticisms — is incomplete without this context.

What’s different about this particular game is that the Irish have an opportunity to immediately right a wrong, just a couple weeks removed from their most recent flop on a major stage. Facing the sport’s two most consistent programs and this season’s clear top two teams in back to back contests is as punishing a challenge as this team could face, and I won’t argue that the trendline looks particularly rosy. But for all the talk about ND’s underwhelming performances when elite coaching staffs have plentiful time to prepare, this is a unique chance to tilt the narrative.

Do I recommend spending literally any time at all paying attention to what folks outside the program think about Notre Dame? I do not. But the program needs to gain momentum for its own sake, to build on an exceedingly successful 2020 campaign and an exceedingly fun four-year run. There is always room for any coaching staff to grow and improve on past results and processes, even if its head coach has been in town for a decade and running. And lord knows they need to learn from what happened in the ACC Championship. What better time than right now?

None of this is predicated on needing to beat ‘Bama outright — that’s a real loser’s proposition for essentially every college football team (here we return to the refrain that if Notre Dame isn’t good, well, that’s kind of a huge bummer for fans of more than a hundred other squads). But lest we forget, this Irish team already knocked one of its tormentors from the top spot not two months ago. Learned helplessness is no fun, and we might as well not watch a single second of a single game if we were to lean into that mindset. I really just want to see what this coaching staff can do in immediate response to another end-of-season shellacking, and what they think the major action items are.

Tommy Rees constructed an inspired gameplan for Clemson round one, and it’s not like Alabama’s defense is impenetrable; the Tide have allowed 19.5 points per game, including 48 and 46 to Ole Miss and Florida, respectively. Ian Book is up to the task (as long as he’s unafraid to stretch the field), but it won’t matter if his receivers are a non-factor like they were a couple weeks ago. As important as securing the line of scrimmage and getting Kyren Williams going is to this offense, the wideouts need to get more separation or the Irish effort will be a non-starter. A ponderous commitment to running the ball into stuffed fronts, a problem that’s popped up on a few occasions this year, would surely doom the Irish as well.

I hate to pin hopes on a player who’s been hobbled all season, but the Irish could use a Braden Lenzy breakout like never before. The actual answer to that vacancy is the offensive staff recognizing that getting Chris Tyree more than two offensive touches is imperative. On the whole, it goes without saying that Rees needs to rely heavily on play-action and misdirection so that the Irish can take advantage of an occasional busted coverage or missed assignment. If Rees is able deflect the Tide defense enough to let Book create outside of the pocket, that’s dandy, but the receiving corps giving Book options is even more important; there’s no way for this offense (or, I guess, any offense) to execute efficiently if the quarterback has nowhere to go with the ball, in or out of the pocket. On that note, though, Ian absolutely can’t take the sacks he did against the Tigers.

It’s likely that the Tide offense, which boasts three of the top five (!) Heisman contenders in the initial voting, is too much for this very good Notre Dame defense. But Clark Lea can and should throw the book at Steve Sarkisian; hopefully Irish defenders are more locked in with additional time to process their conductor’s impending departure. The pass rush was inconsistent against Clemson, but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Mac Jones is not quite as hard to bring down as Trevor Lawrence. Hit the man.

Alabama will make explosive plays downfield and get their points, but a turnover or two and a few early stops are all that’s really needed to potentially make it an uncomfortable affair for the heavy favorites. There’s not really any good answer against this kind of offensive attack, but give the offense a chance to hit on a few chunk plays, convert any and all red zone chances, and we’ve got ourselves a ballgame. Notre Dame is a top five team for a reason, and if the Gators can give the death star a real scare, so can the Irish.

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