Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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34 JANUARY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED T he way he answered some in- quiries, Brian Kelly must have trudged to a podium somewhere in the depths of AT&T Stadium feel- ing like an anvil rested upon his back. The Notre Dame head coach un- derstood what was coming, and that he wouldn't like it. The Fighting Irish were publicly denied again in its quest to reach college football's rarest air, this time a 31-14 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff (CFP) semi- finals. The Crimson Tide were once again a bugaboo. The Irish once again came up short of where they want to be. Kelly wasted no time weighing in. "I guess everybody needs to con- tinue to carry this narrative that Notre Dame is not good enough," Kelly said. "Look at the scores of the games Alabama has played all year, and I think we need to start to change the narrative a little bit." Asked how his program can tighten the score, Kelly shook his head, sighed and let out a momen- tary laugh of incredulity. "I really don't want to continue to go down this path," he said. "We're going to keep getting here, okay? And we're going to keep banging at it. "These questions keep coming up like we have to reinvent ourselves." No, Notre Dame doesn't need a full-scale reboot. And the Irish are not alone in succumbing to Alabama's or Clemson's premier skill level. But two things — two areas of residence, really — can be true at once. The first: Notre Dame is in a healthy spot and in position to re- turn to the CFP if it just keeps doing what it's doing. It is already one of only five teams with multiple ap- pearances. And the second: Despite its 10-win consistency and ability to reach the CFP, the rinse-and-repeat perfor- mances in major bowl games leave Irish fans feeling a bit sour, especially with the team's outward expression of its national title expectations. Here's where Notre Dame finds itself. The high level of play is dis- cussed and met with a hunger for the final step that has proven elusive to it and many others. Getting to these games steadily fuels the yearning for winning them. In this space, the questions about further ascent are fair no matter how much they irked Kelly, but so is his gesturing toward the skins already on the wall. It's like having seats in the very back row at exclusive premieres of the last three "Star Wars" movies. One is still at the movie while ev- eryone else waits, but lacking the re- sources to outbid a few billionaires for the best views in the theater. Notre Dame has been to the CFP as often as the entire Pac-12, and once more than Georgia or LSU. Okla- homa has twice the number of CFP appearances as Notre Dame, but the same number of wins. The Irish have been a frequent challenger, but not a successful one. By pointing to Alabama's entire sea- son of rip-cording through opponents, Kelly isn't throwing his hands up in permanent defeat. Notre Dame is closer to the Crimson Tide than it was the last time they played, though still not quite in striking distance. Nothing here is a moral victory, but it's worth noting some evidence of evolution. Notre Dame couldn't hold up physically when it played Alabama in the BCS title game in January 2013. In this relocated Rose Bowl, there was no line-of-scrimmage mismatch. Now, the disparity is at the skill posi- tions, where Alabama's excess of riches picked apart Notre Dame's defense in mounting an early 21-7 lead. The Crimson Tide had nine plays of at least 15 yards through three quarters. Notre Dame had four. All told, holding Ala- bama to 31 points despite that is a rela- tive success. But that's still a number the Irish offense never threatened to reach in either of the last two games or the last time they made the CFP. Explosiveness and perimeter talent are Notre Dame's next areas to ad- dress in the chase, in recruiting and in current player development. The Irish have steady veterans and intriguing youngsters who helped them get to this point. Alabama has game-changers and field-flippers who might help them win a national title. "We think we can get there," Kelly said. "We have to continue to find more playmakers. And we'll keep working at it. We're committed to doing it, and we're not going away." Added running back Kyren Wil- liams: "We're going to get to that point where we can have that [fire- power on] offense." Even with a host of changes on of- fense next season — new quarterback and line turnover chief among them — there's still some intrigue among the returners. Williams is a commodity. Alabama coveted Irish freshman running back Chris Tyree and his speed. A healthy Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin Jr., plus a sophomore-year Jordan John- son have some appeal at wide re- ceiver. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer has the look of a difference- maker, if he's not one already. Incoming freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. should have a chance at play- ing time. As important an offseason as this one is, weathering turnover has been no obstacle to Notre Dame's pen- chant for churning out 10-win seasons. "We're going to get ourselves back in this position again," Kelly said. "You don't need to jump off a bridge or a building." It's less the future opportunity in question, but the hopes for a different script. ✦ Notre Dame And An Existence In Mutual Exclusivity ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Notre Dame had a difficult time containing Alabama's skill players — none more so than senior wide receiver DeVonta Smith — and didn't possess the firepower on offense to match them. PHOTO COURTESY COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF

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