SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It’s hard to live in the moment at Notre Dame, where the past stares back everywhere you turn.
A statue of the Four Horsemen and a line of Heisman Trophies greet Notre Dame players in the lobby of the Guglielmino Athletic Complex in South Bend, Indiana. When players grab a bite at Smashburger at the LaFortune Student Center, they see walls lined with pictures commemorating the greatest Notre Dame teams and legends.
The distant past isn’t top of mind for the 2018 Fighting Irish, although they’re well aware the program hasn’t won a national championship in 30 years. It’s the recent past, specifically the 2012 team, that is anchored to present-day Notre Dame, and it will be right up until Saturday afternoon, when the Irish make their College Football Playoff debut against No. 2 Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (4 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“We’re still being compared to what happened in 2012, fair or unfair,” coach Brian Kelly said at his arrival news conference Monday in Dallas. “We need to set a new kind of parameter there.”
When a team like Notre Dame makes the national championship its singular goal, and hasn’t had a chance to directly compete for a title in six years, it’s natural to examine the most recent performance on college football’s biggest stage. For those who forget — many Domers have selective amnesia — it didn’t go well for the guys in the gold helmets: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14. The Tide scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, led 35-0 and outrushed the Irish 265-32 en route to their second consecutive BCS national title and third in four seasons under Nick Saban.
A championship matchup with incredible historical connections went historically poorly for the Irish.
“I was like eight plays into my call sheet and we were down 21-0,” said Chuck Martin, then Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and now head coach at Miami (Ohio), in a recent phone interview. “We got taken out behind the woodshed.”
Added Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, then Notre Dame’s wide receivers coach: “We played not nearly as well as we were capable of playing. On that night, we didn’t fire, and we needed to, obviously, on that big stage.”
None of Notre Dame’s current players competed against Alabama on that January night in South Florida. Only Kelly and two current assistants — defensive line coach Mike Elston and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees, then a reserve quarterback for the team — were part of that dark chapter in Fighting Irish history.
Yet the shadow of the loss lingers entering Saturday’s semifinal. Will the Irish flop again, or show that they belong? Like six years ago, Notre Dame is undefeated and facing a seemingly more talented, more dominant opponent as a double-digit underdog (Alabama entered the title game as a 10-point favorite; Clemson is currently a 12.5-point favorite). Like the 2012 team, which won six games by nine or fewer points, the 2018 Irish have had their share of tight contests, with six wins by 10 or fewer points. Both squads struggled with unranked Pitt before prevailing at home, although the 2012 team had to erase a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit, one of several second-half rallies it mounted that fall.
The 2012 team played a tougher schedule, especially early on, with four of its first eight games against top-20 opponents. The 2018 team, meanwhile, navigated a nationally diverse schedule and a wacky final stretch that featured two West Coast trips, an East Coast trip, a Chicago trip and only one home game after Oct. 13. This year, the Fighting Irish rank sixth nationally in total efficiency and boast impressive balance, which the 2012 team lacked despite a historically elite defense (entering the championship game, it led the nation in fewest points allowed at 10.33 per game).
“Our defense was crazy good, but I just think Notre Dame’s got a better team this time around,” Martin said. “I think they’re more complete. We had some great, great players. I think we had some holes that, when we finally got Alabama, some of our holes got exposed. I think this team has less holes, I really do.”
Kelly also noted the current team’s balance, telling ESPN’s Marty Smith: “This is the best team that I’ve had at Notre Dame, where we don’t have a glaring weakness.”
Notre Dame looks like a team that belongs, but some still question the team’s legitimacy.
“Any time you’re a team that hasn’t won a national championship in a while, you’re going to be looked at with a bit of a side eye,” said Mike Golic Jr., an offensive lineman for the 2012 team and now an ESPN analyst. “This Notre Dame team has to pay for our sins in 2012. People are going to hold what happened six years ago against these guys, which is asinine.
“Until they see it, people aren’t going to believe it’s possible. It’s unfair. It’s lazy with analysis. But it’s the way it works.”
Is the comparison unfair? Absolutely. Current players shrug it off. They’re not the first Notre Dame team tied to the past. They also know they have an opportunity to shape how the program is seen in the future.
“2012 was a great team,” running back Jafar Armstrong said. “They had one game where they didn’t have it together, but I don’t think it hurts us. I think we’re two great teams and two different teams as well. We don’t have the same players. Coach Kelly was there, but it’s not the same coaches. Every team has their own personality and their own way of playing games.”
Notre Dame is different now. The program has gone through sweeping changes since its loss to Alabama in 2012. Impacted areas include recruiting, strength and conditioning, nutrition, the on-field staff and, most importantly, the head coach.
“The unvarnished truth, where you can stop making excuses for somebody or something, and look at it as it truly is, it allows you then to take action,” Kelly said recently. “I think that’s what defeat does.”
Kelly took dramatic actions after Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016, his worst season as a head coach and just his second losing season out of 26. With this past offseason came more subtle tweaks, as Notre Dame had moved closer toward its goal in 2017, only to backslide down the stretch.
Martin, who joined Kelly’s staff at Grand Valley State in 2000, succeeded him there as head coach in 2004 and rejoined him at Notre Dame from 2010 to 2013, said Kelly’s willingness to adapt has long been among his greatest strengths. At Grand Valley, Kelly scrapped a pro-set, I-formation offense for a spread system that was then uncommon. Kelly led Cincinnati to Orange and Sugar Bowls behind a fast-paced offense, but after consecutive 8-5 seasons to begin his Notre Dame tenure, he realized the team’s strength was on defense. In 2012, he turned over play-calling duties to Martin, who favored the run and less tempo.
“Most people that are successful like Brian Kelly get stuck in their ways, where, for whatever reason, he’s always been willing to say, ‘Hey, this has been really good to us, but maybe we have different kids now or maybe we have a different schedule or a different league,'” Martin said. “His ability to adapt and change with kids, with programs, is to me, what sets him apart from just about anybody else.”
Kelly, 57, recently joined Saban and TCU’s Gary Patterson as the only two-time winners of the AP Coach of the Year award. Former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, now a college football and NFL analyst for Fox, said Kelly and Saban have both shown the willingness to adapt.
The most profound and difficult changes came after 2016. Kelly shook up his on-field coaching staff and parted ways with longtime strength coach Paul Longo, a close friend.
“He has the ability to look at what Notre Dame needs to do to win in this era,” Quinn said. “They’ve really been able to excel with getting these guys bigger and stronger and faster, so they can compete at that elite level. Because sometimes, they’re not getting the most athletic player.”
The most noticeable shift has been Kelly’s demeanor. For years, his national image was of a red-faced, profanity-spewing madman blowing up unfortunate players (memorably Rees) on the sideline. Now, Kelly is not nearly as turbulent during games, which reflects more in his team’s play, just as the coaching adage goes.
“We all want to win a national championship, but it’s the journey that you get, the relationships, the times that you have with your players, that’s what motivates us,” he told ESPN. “So I made a decision a few years ago, I’m going to enjoy being with my team. I’m going to enjoy this, this journey, and help them prepare to win a national championship.”
As was the case six years ago, Notre Dame’s championship path goes through an opponent more accustomed to the setting that awaits. Clemson is making its fourth consecutive playoff appearance, and every Tigers player other than the true freshmen has some idea of what to expect. Kelly says that while Notre Dame was physically prepared to face Alabama in the 2013 BCS title game, “We were not mentally prepared for that moment.” And it showed.
Why will this time be any different? Fighting Irish players have been in nationally relevant games, whether it was this year’s opener against Michigan, last year’s trip to Miami or a 2015 game at Stanford that carried playoff implications. Their lack of actual playoff experience is undeniable and could show against Clemson, but players don’t expect they’ll be wide-eyed and antsy.
“I’m not worried at all about it,” senior wide receiver Miles Boykin said. “This group is different from other Notre Dame teams in the past. This is why we came here. There’s no other reason to come to Notre Dame other than to play in games like this. For us to be anything other than prepared for this game would be an embarrassment to this program.”
Clemson expects to get Notre Dame’s best shot.
“They haven’t been in this seat before, in the playoff,” Tigers defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell said. “Notre Dame has won countless national championships, but they haven’t been in the playoff before, so it’s a no-brainer as to what their mindset is going to be. They’re going to come in here and try to beat the brakes off of us.”
A key difference between the 2012 and 2018 Notre Dame teams is what led to championship-contending seasons. The players on the 2012 team had never experienced a season better than 8-5 or worse than 6-6. “We kind of snuck up on a lot of people,” Denbrock recalled. “I don’t think anybody was thinking this was an incredibly dominant group.”
Notre Dame’s current seniors, conversely, entered the fall with two 10-win seasons — each in which the team reached the top four of the CFP rankings — sandwiching a 4-8 clunker. Last year, the Irish pushed eventual national runner-up Georgia in a 1-point loss, but also saw how far they needed to go after crumbling against Miami and Stanford down the stretch.
In the offseason, Kelly emphasized the need to handle chaos better. This season, Notre Dame has faced chaos without flinching. Spend any time around the Irish and their maturity jumps out.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in [Kelly] and just them being able to handle the moment,” Quinn said. “I know it might not feel like it because it’s been six years since they were playing for a national championship, but at Notre Dame, every year you’re playing for a national championship. You don’t have the conference championship, you don’t have anything else, so every game, every time you’re out there, that’s your goal, that’s your hope. So I don’t know that it’s going to change much.”
Notre Dame players spoke openly about the national championship in the offseason, not in an arrogant or obligatory tone, but more as a matter of fact. The team’s strides toward the CFP in 2017, and its ultimate failure to reach the field, created a roadmap for returning players to follow.
The Irish found ways to overcome losing two offensive linemen, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, who became top-10 NFL draft picks, as well as leading rusher Josh Adams, top receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and others. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko departed for Texas A&M after transforming a bad unit into a solid one, and his protege Clark Lea elevated the defense even further.
So while winning the national championship is Notre Dame’s annual stated goal, players discussed it with more conviction and experience this year.
“I think the message on why you came to Notre Dame kind of got lost a little bit, obviously, in my first couple years,” Boykin said. “What else could you come to Notre Dame for? We don’t have a conference championship. Yeah, we play rivals, but one win isn’t going to make the season. When you really put things into perspective, I came here to graduate and be a national champion.”
Boykin and his teammates will attempt to take a big step toward that goal Saturday. Would a strong showing change the way Notre Dame is viewed? “No one’s in this for moral victories or to forget 2012,” Quinn said.
He’s right, but outside the program, the performance will resonate.
“Obviously, if it got ugly — and my gut is it’s not going to get ugly — but you know how these things go, there’s enough Notre Dame haters out there that everybody’s going to say, ‘They don’t belong,'” Martin said. “And there’s enough Notre Dame likers that are going to over-exaggerate the other way. It’s what makes Notre Dame, Notre Dame.
“But them playing well and being competitive, which I think they will be, will make another step. And, obviously, if they win it, they’re back in the game.”
Notre Dame players have nothing to prove to their coach. Kelly views this as his best, most balanced, most resilient team. He also knows that at Notre Dame, you’re always judged against the past, both distant and recent.
“We’re still reliving 2012 from a national media standpoint,” he said. “I think we get to move past that with a victory against Clemson. We’ll start to be able to talk about where Notre Dame football is today compared to 2012.”