Back in October Brian Kelly spent a day of Notre Dame’s bye week in Alabama, speaking at the Quarterback Club of Birmingham. He was an obvious interloper, showing up the week after Alabama basketball coach Avery Johnson and a week before Nick Saban, who doesn’t need a job title for identification.
During a Q&A with the audience, Kelly was asked who he wanted a shot at most, Clemson, the team that beat him by two points two weeks earlier, or Alabama, the team that beat him by four touchdowns three years earlier.
Kelly said he wanted Alabama.
Dander was immediately up.
If you’ve ever spent time with Kelly in small spaces, you know he’s built for moments like that. He specializes in getting crowds to eat out of his hand, even ones bearing fangs. So Kelly explained why he wanted the Crimson Tide. After playing Clemson to rain-soaked draw in Death Valley, Kelly believed the Irish could take the Tigers on a neutral field. He wanted to see if the program he’d spent the past three years rebuilding after that BCS Championship Game disaster was actually rebuilt.
Notre Dame never got that shot, its season submarined by that failed two-point conversion at Clemson and the injuries that followed. Yet the Irish nearly beat the best quarterback in college football on his home field with a backup making his first road start. Notre Dame nearly beat Pac-12 champion Stanford with a threadbare defense. It got knocked out against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, but not before landing plenty of punches.
The morning after Alabama outlasted Clemson in a classic, Notre Dame finished No. 11 in the Associated Press Poll.
Clemson finished No. 2. Stanford ended No. 3. Ohio State went No. 4.
Watching Clemson hang with Alabama on Monday night, falling with the aid of a brilliant onside kick, a kickoff return touchdown and the Tide winning the turnover battle, makes Brian Kelly look right. What could be dismissed as a death wish would have actually been a serious measuring stick. A full strength Notre Dame could have hung with Alabama this year in a way that BCS Championship Game team couldn’t.
Now, even with Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley out the door, Notre Dame feels closer to genuinely competing for titles than it was when it actually played for one.
There is no magic formula for beating Alabama – that dynasty is back on – but there is a blueprint that can give Notre Dame a real shot against the Crimson Tide and over anybody else.
Start with finding a quarterback who can be a true dual threat, which DeShone Kizer was last season, Malik Zaire might be next season and Brandon Wimbush could be after that. Beyond the head coach, Notre Dame should have its most important puzzle piece in place for the next four years.
Then don’t be afraid to innovate, which Alabama and Clemson did masterfully. Despite a new offensive coordinator, Clemson hummed behind Watson, a young offensive line and young skilled talent. It didn’t marry itself to a system, it married itself to its talent, including former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow. What Saban did with Lane Kiffin and two different quarterbacks was genius.
Kelly did a winning job with his own offense, making the three-way playcalling work with Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford. Notre Dame’s head coach knew his offense needed an extra gear and Sanford helped provide it. It had gone stale. Sanford hit refresh.
Where Notre Dame continues to labor is on defense, where Brian VanGorder is no Brent Venables or Kirby Smart. Clemson lost its front seven from last season and just led the nation in tackles for loss. Alabama’s industrial pipeline of talent at defensive line and linebacker produced the nation’s highest sack total. The Tide was No. 2 in yards per play and scoring defense.
But both defenses were shredded Monday night, editing the football cliché that defense wins championships. Instead, fundamentally sound defense will get you into the College Football Playoff. But once you’re there you’d better have an explosive offense and pyrotechnic quarterback to stay.
Yes, Notre Dame is years away from matching Alabama or Clemson in defensive line talent. The Tide rotated two five-star sophomore pass rushers as reserves. The Irish started a freshman defensive tackle recruited for the offensive line and couldn’t play a functional nickel defense.
But the Irish have a quarterback and offensive plan to score with anybody. If Kelly can figure out that defense – it doesn’t need to sing, it just needs to be sound – Notre Dame can make another run at the College Football Playoff next year. The offensive staff is there. The offensive pieces are too.
It will take more than elite quarterback play and top play calling to make the final four, but with those two things figured out, Kelly has the ingredients to enter the real postseason. Maybe he’ll get that shot to measure Notre Dame against Alabama. And if Kelly keeps pushing the envelope offensively while recalibrating VanGorder, that shot may be here sooner than you think.