Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 3, 2021

Time To Give Notre Dame The Boot

Well, that wasn’t exactly appointment television, was it? The semifinal games of the College Football Playoff were contested on New Year’s Day, though the verb in that phrasing is used very generously. As previously noted in this space, this college football season was anything but normal. Between the relocation of the Rose Bowl game to Texas from, well, the Rose Bowl, the reworking of COVID-19 quarantine rules for the sole purpose of making more players eligible to play, and the smattering of fans at what in any other year would have been packed stadiums, this CFP is now unfolding in kind. But at least the first college football game of the new year gave us a result that can safely be called routine. Notre Dame played in a major bowl game, and Notre Dame got buried.

Since the start of the CFP’s predecessor Bowl Championship Series in 1998, the Fighting Irish had been chosen to play in one of the so-called New Year’s Day bowls – the six top college bowl games – six times prior to this season. Three Fiesta Bowls, one Cotton, one Sugar, and the 2013 BCS national title game. Beginning with a 41-9 Fiesta Bowl pasting at the hands of Oregon State to wrap up the 2000 season, Notre Dame lost all six of those matchups by an average margin of 24 points. Only once did the final scoreboard show the Irish as close as two touchdowns, when Ohio State romped to a 34-20 win at the 2005 Fiesta. Notre Dame even went into the 2013 championship game ranked number one in the country, though bettors showed their disdain for the polls by making Alabama as much as a ten-point favorite. The Crimson Tide had little trouble covering, leading at one point 35-0 before coasting to a 42-14 victory.

That history may have been on the minds of oddsmakers when the line was set for this year’s Rose Bowl matchup between the same two schools. Of course, Alabama came into the game ranked number one and had dispatched most opponents with ease this season, so the Tide was certain to be favored over any team. But Nick Saban’s squad had shown at least a hint of vulnerability against Florida in an offensive shootout at the SEC Championship, finally winning 52-46. And the job of the Playoff selection committee is to identify the top four teams in the land, so presumably the semifinal should have been the sternest test yet for Alabama.

But the Irish entered as a 19-to-20-point underdog, a point spread suggesting the gambling public was dismissing the committee’s spin and instead paying attention to Notre Dame’s most recent outing, a lopsided 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship. In that game Notre Dame turned the ball over four times and was outgained in total offensive yards by more than two to one.

In some alternate universe, one in which they give out trophies or at least game balls for moral victories, Friday’s result might be construed as some kind of win for the South Bend squad. At least fans who took Notre Dame and the points were left happy, as a garbage time touchdown run by quarterback Ian Book made the final score 31-14, meaning Alabama failed to cover the betting spread. But in the real world the game was over at halftime, or more honestly by the end of the first quarter, when the Tide already had a 14-0 lead and a win probability over ninety percent. By the time the game ended, 56 seconds on the clock after Book’s meaningless (except for the bettors) TD and long after viewers hoping to be entertained had gone channel surfing, the Fighting Irish had once again failed to live up to their name in a major bowl game. Make that record now 0-7, and the total margin a whopping 161 points.

When Notre Dame’s latest mismatch was followed by Ohio State’s 49-28 shellacking of Clemson in a game that was also effectively decided by halftime, one was left wondering what the CFP hype, which had been impossible to escape for several days, was all about. But while the day’s second game may have been appealing mostly to viewers with an Ohio State diploma hanging on their wall, it at least possessed the minor dramatic virtue of being unexpected. Most pundits and fans pegged the tilt between the Buckeyes and Tigers as a tossup.

The aftermath of that contest focused on Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s very public decision to place Ohio State 11th on his ballot for the last USA Today Coaches Poll, a survey which overall ranked the Buckeyes third, just behind Swinney’s Tigers. The Clemson coach gamely tried to explain that his ranking was based not on any doubt about the quality of the Ohio State team, but rather a belief that any squad that had taken the field just six times in this bizarre season played, however questionably, amidst a raging pandemic, shouldn’t be ranked at the same level as teams that had played something closer to a routine schedule. Unfortunately, Swinney seemed not to grasp that in our internet age, context and nuance are very much out of fashion.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on the other hand, probably wished he had left Alabama off his ranking entirely, as that would have given the media something to ask him about besides Notre Dame’s abysmal record in major bowl games. He sounded at times like he was trying for a participation trophy, asserting that Alabama had won most of its games by a lot and that the only real difference in the game was “making plays.” Well, yes Brian, making plays is what football is all about.

But for Notre Dame football this is not about one game, or for that matter one head coach. The ugly record in major bowls covers the tenure of five head coaches, if one counts the single game managed by defensive coordinator Kent Baer after Tyrone Willingham was fired in 2004. It is a reflection not of any single person or any particular system, but of a college football program trading on a nostalgic history as an independent. This season played within the ACC aside, Notre Dame’s schedule is usually full of traditional opponents, most of which are relative pushovers. The soft calendar allows the Irish to pile up wins and improve its ranking, both of which appeal to a broad if aging fan base and its very, very long-running television contract with NBC (this was year 30, and the deal runs to 2025). What it doesn’t do, as has now been proven in ugly and decisive fashion for the seventh time in a row, is make Notre Dame competitive with college football’s elite programs.

So here’s some advice for the CFP selection committee. The next time the Fighting Irish are being considered for one of the four precious spots in your Playoff, turn instead to whatever school is the leading contender from outside the Power 5 conferences. Will Cincinnati, or Coastal Carolina, or UCF, or Boise State play the part of David and take down whatever Power 5 Goliath it faces? Not likely. But the guess here is that the TV ratings won’t suffer a bit, and the game will certainly be more entertaining.

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