How much has Notre Dame closed the gap? We're about to find out against Alabama
The miscalculation for those who either hope/fear Notre Dame’s second College Football Playoff appearance turns out to be a program referendum is that top-ranked Alabama is not a stationary target.
Notre Dame’s obsession — its fan base included — since a 42-14 defrocking by Alabama in the BCS national championship eight seasons ago, and its mantra since a 30-3 smothering from Clemson in a 2018 playoff loss, has been “closing the gap” on this generation’s postseason ogres.
Friday’s CFP semifinal at the relocated Rose Bowl in Arlington, Texas, seemed like a convenient checkpoint for No. 4 Notre Dame to gauge that, particularly in light of the two disparate outcomes against playoff semifinalist Clemson this season.
Where the algorithm fails is that No. 1 Alabama has been closing the gap, too, since the last meeting between the teams, in 2012.
Since that 2012 coronation, Alabama has added national titles in 2015 and 2017, made six of the seven playoff fields, and sent an FBS-high 72 players to the NFL through the draft, more than half of those first- or second-rounders.
Perhaps the most imposing notion for the rest of the college football world to digest is that the man considered the best coach of this generation and likely others — Nick Saban, at age 69 — is getting better.
“Alabama plays very differently than the 2012 Alabama team that you saw, because you have to play differently in college football these days.” said Cecil Hurt, sports editor of the Tuscaloosa News, who’s been covering the Crimson Tide since 1982. “You have to score more points.
“And Nick simultaneously hates that, but no matter what he hates, he loves winning more than he hates having to change. He will change, because he loves to win.
“So he has changed. They’re more athletic defensively. Guys that can play in space. They’re not as big and powerful up front defensively. It won’t be the same offensive line, where they just pound you and grind you, because that’s not what they try and do offensively anymore."
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Whether the Irish, as the biggest underdog in playoff history (20 points), can find a path to its 10th toppling of a No. 1 team in program history and advance to the Jan. 11 title game in Miami, the long-term takeaway worth holding onto is that Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is evolving as well.
Not just from his first season in 2010, when parading around with a Sun Bowl trophy at the end of an eight-win season felt like a milestone. And not just from the transformative offseason after a 4-8 divot in 2016 that galvanized a 43-7 response in the 50 games since.
Kelly has evolved since 2019. Since the September COVID-19 team outbreak that threatened to swallow the season. Since yesterday.
“Open-minded people stay abreast with what’s going on around them,” said longtime Kelly confidant Rick Minter, who had two tours of duty as ND’s defensive coordinator, first under Lou Holtz (1992-93) and then under Charlie Weis (2005-06).
“They overcome, adjust, adapt, change, try to be a better version of themselves next time out. Listen to people. Go visit people. Have people come in who do it differently. Hear them out. Just like Brian did personally when he talked to all the players a few years ago, and he just kind of reinvented himself."
Where it’s brought Kelly and Notre Dame is a place only four of the other 130 Bowl Subdivision programs have been so far, a second appearance at the playoff party.
That in itself is reason to celebrate.
The bigger payoff potentially, though, is the chase, built around Kelly’s belief that Friday shouldn’t represent the pinnacle of post-Lou Holtz era football.
But rather a step to possibly something bigger down the road.
The brightest star on this Notre Dame team is a former three-star prospect, poached from Virginia’s class and verbally committing on national signing day 2017 via a semi-botched staged phone call in front of the media.
And yet senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the 2020 Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best linebacker, is hardly an outlier.
Twelve out of the 22 players who started in this year's ACC championship game against Clemson, including quarterback Ian Book and eight defensive players are also Rivals three-stars.
Add to that nine four stars and five-star defensive end Daelin Hayes, it looks as if the Irish are regressing in talent. Alabama’s starting lineup in its SEC championship game defeat of Florida featured two three-stars, 13 four-stars and six five-stars.
“It's a deeper roster, more physical on both sides of the ball,” Kelly qualified last Sunday on how his 2020 roster was different/better than 2012’s, despite the star rankings suggesting otherwise.
“But I think overall the depth of the roster, the ability to make plays on both sides of the ball and, quite frankly, just the size and physicality on both the offensive and defensive line is probably the biggest departure from 2012.”
There are two major flaws in relying solely on star ratings to evaluate talent differentials on rosters, however.
A more telling breakdown of ready-made elite talent is the amassing of top 50 and top 100 players. And in that sense, the gap between Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State and Notre Dame, as well as most other programs, appears to be widening.
In the eight classes that immediately followed their game eight year ago, Alabama signed 75 Rivals top 100 players. Ohio State signed 66, Clemson 40 and Notre Dame 25. In sifting down to the top 50, it’s Alabama 49, Ohio State 33, Clemson 29 and Notre Dame 11.
Notre Dame’s answer is elite player evaluation led by director of scouting Bill Rees, embracing and selling the school’s high academic bar instead of pushing for admittance of players who would never be able to survive academically long term anyway, and a player development model that turns three-stars into five-stars with some regularity.
In fact, if you look at the ratios of top 50 and top 100 players to eventual first- and second-round draft picks and overall NFL draftees, Oklahoma and Notre Dame are the two schools that are producing well above their recruiting grades and everyone else’s.
Not that Kelly is satisfied with the recruiting status quo.
“I think where my mindset has changed is I don’t want to put a ceiling on where we should be in the rankings,” Kelly said earlier this month. “I think we should push to find the best players in the country just as if we’re pushing to be the best football team in the country."
Notre Dame’s 2020 approach certainly lacks the offensive opulence of the other three teams in the playoff field. It was more than good enough to get the Irish into the playoff field, but is it a philosophy that can win games at the playoff level?
Notre Dame’s 31-17 victory at North Carolina last month was the model at its best. The Irish played keepaway, limiting the nation’s No. 4 team in total offense to 57 plays and 298 total yards - almost half the Tar Heels’ per-game average.
But it works best when playing with the lead. And Notre Dame trailed in regulation this season just 44:47 in the 600 minutes leading up to the Clemson rematch on Dec. 19.
In that game, Clemson led for 45:41, and the Irish unraveled.
“You have less room for error if you’re going to play with fewer plays,” Minter said. “That’s the down side.
“So you can’t have a dropped pass. You can’t have untimely penalties, turnovers at the wrong time, because you’re just going to end up with less plays, less possessions and less opportunities to put points on people.”
If there is a next time at the playoff party, Notre Dame will likely have morphed again in its in-game identity while doubling down on its cultural one.
“It’s those kinds of changes that make what Brian Kelly does on the field from year to year sustainable,” Minter said.