When I was a kid, my favorite sports movie was Rudy. This is mainly because Sean Astin’s portrayal of the massive underdog in Rudy Ruettiger absolutely warmed my heart. The problem is we don’t live in the confines of a movie.
The fact is the real life version of Notre Dame is far from the glory years of Coach Arra Parseghian and Lou Holtz. Brian Kelly has done a great job as the head coach in South Bend, but let’s face it. When the Fighting Irish are on the national stage, they usually flounder. It doesn’t matter if Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weiss, or even Brian Kelly is leading the charge from the locker room onto the gridiron.
Despite what some Notre Dame fans might tell you, Kelly is definitely NOT the reincarnation of Knute Rockne. The eye test and the summarized box scores prove that Kelly has been overmatched in both recruiting and overall coaching intangibles when he goes up against the cream of the crop in Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney In fact, Notre Dame has been notorious for struggling against ranked opponents since we as a human race entered the new millennium.
Actually, the University of Notre Dame has been pretty darn dreadful in marquee college football games. Since 2000, Notre Dame has suffered such embarrassing defeats as the 2000 Fiesta Bowl (A 41-9 loss to Oregon State), the BCS National Championship Game (a 41-14 defeat to Alabama), and the CFP National Semifinals (Clemson absolutely destroying UND by a final score of 30-3).
When I decided to write this article, I acknowledged that ESPN’s Football Power Index heavily favors Notre Dame as a Top 4 college football team this season. Outside of the Clemson ACC Championship Game, Notre Dame looked like their undefeated record suited them. After all, Bill Parcels once said, “You are what your record says you are,” and Notre Dame actually beat Clemson earlier in the season….albeit, Trevor Lawrence couldn’t play in that game due to contracting COVID-19.
But still, another disastrous game against a Top 5 opponent just begs the question, “Does Notre Dame even deserve to play for a national championship trophy?” To answer that question, we first have to look at the history behind Notre Dame football. And furthermore, we as football fans need to consider that having the simple brand of Notre Dame in the CFP is probably more important than say Texas A&M or Cincinnati.
First of all, Notre Dame is a nationwide college football brand. The NCAA will always deny this, but they love making money. After all, who doesn’t? Be honest here. If you had to pick between putting Notre Dame, Texas A&M, or even Cincy in the national semifinals, who would you pick? The Nielsen ratings love Notre Dame football. Texas A&M football is huge in the state of Texas. The lone star state is a very populated state of course, but the Aggies just don’t have the national audience as the Fighting Irish.
Let’s go back to how popular the sports movie Rudy is to everyday Americans. Even people who don’t like football like that movie because of the amazing scenery and awesome football fight song. So when the CFP starts playing on TV, there’s a chance that some people will stay tuned to the telly because they synonomize Notre Dame football with a really cool movie. TV revenue is all about brand awareness, so even if the consumer doesn’t care about the actual premise of the CFP, they might still be interested in watching the Rose Bowl because “Ole Notre Dame” is playing in the big game. Love or hate Notre Dame, there’s a lot more recent history to the Notre Dame football program than Texas A&M. Besides Johnny Manziel, there hasn’t been a lot to be excited about in College Station for the average football fan these past 10 or so seasons. And even though Notre Dame generally stinks in big-time bowl games, at least they got there with Ian Book, Everett Golson and Brady Quinn under center.
That’s the underlying problem where even big name schools like Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Christian have when it comes to being selected as a Top 4 team. Granted, TCU and Baylor both didn’t play each other in a Big 12 championship game during that 2014 season, but still. Ohio State means big dollars for the Nielsen ratings, whereas Baylor and TCU are more well-known for the more knowledgeable college football fan. So when the CFP committee had to choose between the three 1-loss teams of TCU, Baylor, and Ohio State, is it really a surprise that they went with the Big Ten champion? Nope!
But is Notre Dame only playing in the Rose Bowl because of previous championships and a spectacular sports film? Naw. Notre Dame has some impressive wins this season, which includes against ranked teams in Clemson and North Carolina. Texas A&M’s conference season was pretty weak this season, minus a home game win against Florida. Plus, the Aggies could’ve easily lost to an eventual 0-and-9 Vanderbilt team: It was a very unimpressive 17-12 defensive battle win for Texas A&M.
How about Cincinnati’s resume? Does an unbeaten Bearcats team have more of a case to play against Alabama than the 1-loss Fighting Irish? Well, if you disregard the Football Power Index, Cincinnati’s resume is fairly decent. Yes, Cincy didn’t have to play Clemson twice, but they would’ve played Tulsa twice this season if not for COVID-19. Three of Cincinnatt’s wins came against ranked opponents, with one of them being a 42-13 drubbing over No. 16-ranked Southern Methodist.
Now the Associated Press rankings can be more about subjective scouting than about the analytics, algorithms, and next-level statistics. But then again, three wins against ranked teams makes you wonder if the CFP is giving Notre Dame a break because the ACC is considered a Power Five football conference.
So was Cincinnati’s conference, the American Athletic, comparable to the Power Five? In two words? Not really. Cincinnati’s rise to relevance again was a great story in college football, but SMU and Central Florida vastly underachieved this year. The AAC just didn’t have a true competitor to Cincy this year besides Tulsa, which is why back-to-back wins for the Bearcats over the Golden Hurricane could’ve put Cincy over the top against Notre Dame’s resume.
That being said, COVID-19 stopped any chances of a 2-0 record over Tulsa this season. Say what you want that Notre Dame played against a backup QB and a banged up Clemson secondary, at least the Fighting Irish went 1-1 against the No.2-ranked team in the nation. Cincinnati just didn’t have to deal with playing Tulsa twice. I don’t know if 2 wins over Tulsa would jumpfrog them over the Fighting Irish, but you have to remember that Notre Dame has constantly let down the CFP and Bowl Championship Series committees over the years. The committee obviously doesn’t want to see another embarrassing defeat from Notre Dame during a primetime bowl game, but it’s just hard to keep the ACC runner-up from playing against Alabama. After all, they beat Clemson at home and No. 19 North Carolina on the road by two touchdowns.
So to sum up, does Notre Dame deserve to be in the College Football Playoff? Absolutely yes. The problem is, history tells us that ND struggles in the big moment. And some of this has to do with recruiting. Generation Zers don’t like to be cold, and most of them don’t come from hardcore Catholic backgrounds like Generation Xers did back in the 60s and 70s. As such, South Bend, Indiana just isn’t as appealing as great football programs from warmer climates like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Clemson, South Carolina, and Athens, Georgia.
If not for a crazy comeback from Tua and the Crimson Tide, the Georgia Bulldogs would’ve been the national champions a couple of years ago. And if history tells football fans anything, Ohio State seems to be the exception to the rule that teams north of the Mason-Dixie can’t compete on the national stage. In fact, teams on the west coast like USC and Oregon usually do better than Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. We’ll see if things have changed for Notre Dame in 2020 and 2021, but after seeing a 34-10 beat down to Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers a couple of weekends ago, I just don’t see it.
Let’s say it’s inevitable that Notre Dame gets destroyed by Alabama. Would Texas A&M or Cincy do better than ND? It’s hard to say. Even though Boise State has proven to be capable of competing with the big boys, there’s usually a reason why Desmond Ridder is the starting QB for the Bearcats and not the Buckeyes. The talent level just isn’t there. If you don’t believe me, remember the last time Cincy played on the national stage? Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators absolutely embarrassed QB Tony Pike and the Bearcats during the Sugar Bowl.
We can go even further back to the days of Colt Brennan and his undefeated Hawai'i Warriors not having a chance against the much stronger and faster Georgia Bulldogs. The Bulldogs annihilated the Warriors 41-10 during the 2008 Sugar Bowl. My point is Cincinnati might very well be undefeated, but the previous track record of non-Power Five teams playing on New Year’s Day usually ends up in not-fun-to-watch television. This is why we desperately need an 8-team playoff: Give undefeated Coastal Carolina and Cincy their shot against the Top 10 recruiting powerhouses like Bama and Clemson and see what happens.
I love that Central Florida claimed a national championship when they finished the 2017-18 season at 13-0. But the fact of the matter is Clemson could’ve easily manhandled the UCF Knights. It’s all hearsay and speculation at this point, but my point is this: If you’re not from a Power Five Conference, or if your strength of schedule is lacking, you’re going to be on the outside looking in. Texas A&M Aggie fans can be pissed all they want, but they had their shot against Alabama earlier this season. And they blew it. So why should they get another shot against Bama after the Crimson Tide dismantled them earlier this season?
As for Cincy? Well, their opponents from this season just weren’t in the same class as Notre Dame. However, don’t be surprised if Notre Dame gets destroyed yet again on New Year’s Day.