Kansas St Baylor Football

Notre Dame is No. 1 (But the system is absolutely broken)


As it tends to happen in November, college football threw its fans a curveball and toppled the country’s top two teams, all but flipping the world on its head with just one week to go in the regular season. A week after an impregnable Alabama team fell to Texas A&M, the top two teams in the country, Kansas State and Oregon, lost as well. Oregon’s loss was dramatic, an overtime defeat to a Stanford team that battled back from three turnovers to vanquish an opponent that’s owned the Cardinal. Kansas State’s loss felt more like Cinderella after midnight, with the Wildcats turning into a pumpkin right before our eyes, getting steamrolled by a 4-5 Baylor team with the worst defense in the country.

Think about that. Collin Klein and Kansas State, called the best player and team in the country by Sports Illustrated just days ago, got blown out by a Baylor Team that lost four straight to the murders row of West Virginia, TCU, Texas, and Iowa State.

The beneficiary of all of this is Notre Dame. Brian Kelly’s squad, fresh off their most impressive offensive performance of the season, now jumps to the No. 1 team in the country. For Domers everywhere, things couldn’t get much better. After a decade of futility, life is good. A week after looking like the odd man out, the Irish ascend to the top spot in the country, all by beating Wake Forest to a pulp. Now, the only team between the Irish and immortality, is USC.

That’s right, Lane Kiffin, a black hat if there every was one, is the last enemy that needs vanquishing. You couldn’t script a better movie if you were spotted John Wayne and the Wild West.

But that’s where this story should stop.

Make no mistake, Notre Dame absolutely deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country. But this system deserves to be thrown in the recycling bin, a relic of yesteryear that is so outdated you’d look better pulling out a fax machine to check your Twitter feed at the sports bar.

The pollsters and the computers that determine who plays for the national championship have been over-matched for years. But watching Kansas State, a team that was considered the most battle-tested in the country lose by four touchdowns to a sub-.500 team, is just another notch in the belt of those that have forever screamed that the pollsters don’t know anything. Bill Snyder’s team losing isn’t another example of the SI cover jinx. It’s a fraud revealed. It’s college football’s Darwinism thankfully doing what pollsters weren’t capable of.

It’s a shame that it took Art Briles squad (a team that spotted Kansas State and Collin Klein seven points with one of the worst interceptions of the season) beating the Wildcats to understand that K-State just isn’t that good. This is a team that cancelled its best game of the year. (Ironically, against Oregon, who also benefited from a cupcake schedule.) It’s a team that scheduled Missouri State and North Texas, only leading the Mean Green by a botched extra point in the third quarter before pulling away. It’s a team with a Heisman candidate with an arm that makes Tommy Rees’ look strong, a guy who would’ve absolutely won the most coveted award in college sports if he didn’t collapse against the worst defense in the country, even though just about anybody who was honest with themselves — or who has actually seen Klein play — knew he’s a non-roster invitee in the NFL at best.

That’s not to spare Oregon. The Ducks, who worked their way to the top of college football in spite of an untested quarterback, have played such luminaries as Arkansas State, Fresno State, and Tennessee Tech before embarking on their conference schedule. They looked like the best team in the country for eleven weeks, if only because everybody assumed Chip Kelly and the Ducks were the real McCoy. That turned out to be incorrect as well, with the Ducks being toppled by a Stanford team playing a redshirt freshman at quarterback in his third state who survived three turnovers. Once again, an Oregon quarterback, this time Marcus Mariota, fell back down to earth when they played a legit defense. Stop me if you’ve heard that one.

None of this spares Notre Dame. That the Irish are the “best” team in the country in spite of struggling to beat Purdue, BYU and Pittsburgh shows you the system we’re working with. Yet in today’s college football, the Irish deserve to be at the top of the heap not because of their stout defense or improving offense, but because of the things they didn’t do: Lose football games and schedule cupcakes.

With a playoff system coming into fruition in 2014, articles like these will hopefully never be written again. But because there’s a championship to be played in Miami, and again next season, it is worth committing this to public record, if only to get in front of history, who will surely judge the current system as the dumbest in sports history.

Picking the top two teams in the country is hard work. So let’s get this on the table: Neither the media nor the coaches can do this job. It’s just too hard. The college football world is too flat, and the game’s best programs have spread too far across the country, all unwilling to play each other when it’s easier to simply battle familiar opponents and wage a PR war instead.

With college football’s warloads even making the computers irrelevant (formulas that can’t factor in margin of victory are less effective than a calculator missing a button), it’s down to the game’s power brokers and voters to steer the ship. We’d be better off with pro wrestling refs.

College football is filled with bias. Coaches, voters, writers, ESPN GameDay hosts. We’ve all got it. We wouldn’t love the sport if we didn’t. But it’s taken over the conversation and it’s all got to stop.

When Alabama works its way back into the national title game with a victory over a 1-10 Western Carolina team that hasn’t sniffed a victory in the Southern conference, it’s all too obvious this sport needs a hard reset. And thankfully in 2014, that’s coming with a playoff.

So while pundits, fans and talking heads will undoubtedly debate Notre Dame’s worthiness atop college football world, consider this a pleasant reminder: It’s not the Irish’s fault. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

No team has earned the right to call themselves No. 1 more than Notre Dame. And if they beat USC next weekend, that’s all the more clear.

Don’t get me wrong, I love college football. But that doesn’t mean the system isn’t broken.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”