Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2021

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

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46 JANUARY 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED P icture yourself ranking among the top two percent nationally in your highly competitive indus- try — yet constantly get carped at or berated about not achieving enough. That is the frustration that boiled over in Brian Kelly in the aftermath of Notre Dame's 31-14 defeat to Ala- bama in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl Jan. 1. When the inevitable inquiries about what it will take to be a na- tional champion or perform much better in "the big ones" were asked, Kelly uncharacteristically lashed out at the media, even about not con- gratulating him more frequently as a bona fide top-five to top-10 program the past four years. "We're going to keep getting back here, and everybody can keep saying Notre Dame is not good enough," Kelly said. "Well, you know what? You're going to have a problem be- cause we're going to keep winning games, we're going to keep getting back here — and we're going to break through. "And then I'm going to be terrible to be at a press conference with. Terrible." In other words, Kelly can't wait for the day to denigrate everyone who keeps harping on how Notre Dame is still perceived as a paper tiger that will continue to be 10- to 20-point underdogs in "the big ones." The immense chasm between col- lege football's "Big Three" — Ala- bama, Clemson and Ohio State — and everyone else has been well documented through the years. The most trying facet to reaching tier one is for everything to coalesce at once. • The 2012 Irish had a dominant defense, but averaged only 25.8 points per game, easily the lowest in the 11-year Kelly era. • In 2015 they had explosive play- ers on offense with first-round re- ceiver Will Fuller, second-round quarterback DeShone Kizer, third- round running back C.J. Prosise and an All-Pro line … but lacked the right defensive coordinator. • In 2018, it was strong on defense and had a pair of dynamic receiv- ers in second- and third-round picks Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, but the offensive line was mostly in a fledgling stage. Furthermore, unlike future top- five picks such as quarterbacks Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence for the other three CFP teams in 2018, Notre Dame had more of a fringe prospect, which remains the case entering 2021. This year the two QBs in the title game again are projected first-round NFL selections in Justin Fields and Mac Jones. Next year the lamentations will likely center on inexperience at quar- terback and significant revamping of the offensive line. And of course, whether there is enough on the pe- rimeter — receiver and cornerback — to reach top-10 level is an issue that will continue. Plain and simple, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State recruit on a higher level, while Notre Dame remains a solid "top 10-15" in attracting talented prep players. That raises another inevitable question: Has Kelly reached his pla- teau after 11 years? There are two themes we've revis- ited many times through the years. One is that you truly aren't the Notre Dame head coach until 10-2 seasons start feeling more like valleys than peaks. The fact that Kelly was so exasperated after the Alabama game is a positive in that he's become a victim of his own success — which is what happens to high-end coaches. Welcome to Notre Dame. That is what you sign up for when you ac- cept this position. It is not graded on a sliding scale. It is pass/fail. If you win the national title, you "passed" and get the sixth statue outside the stadium. If you don't, you "failed" at what the ultimate goal is. In the words of the grandfatherly but nefarious Hyman Roth in "The Godfather Part II," "This is the busi- ness that we've chosen!" For highly successful and future College Football Hall of Fame in- ductee Kelly, it is understandably hard to swallow that while 98 per- cent of FBS coaches would love to be in his position, his only measuring stick is the other two percent. This is the type of standard that helped compel Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz to leave Notre Dame after 11 seasons — and that was after hav- ing to feed the insatiable monster they created by winning a national title earlier in their careers. Two is the notion that Kelly might be this generation's Elmer Layden, the head coach at Notre Dame from 1934-40. With a 47-13-3 record, Layden's winning percentage of .770 was ac- tually better than Irish national title coaches Holtz (.765) and Dan Devine (.764). He was one game away from winning the national title in 1938 and also on the threshold in 1935 after an epic victory at Ohio State, but came up short both times. That's the one reason he doesn't have his own statue while Devine and Holtz do. Along the line of scrimmage, this program can match up with most anyone. The prime issues remain along the perimeter on both sides — which is why Ben Skowronek and Nick McCloud were so highly valu- able as grad transfers in 2020 — plus the program-changer at quarterback. There is somewhat of a revamp in 2021, and then Clemson and Ohio State are both on the regular-season slates in 2022-23. It remains an uphill climb, but this is the business that has been chosen. ✦ This Is The Business Brian Kelly Has Chosen THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at At his press conference following the loss to Alabama, Kelly said, "We're going to keep win- ning games, we're going to keep getting back here — and we're going to break through." PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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