So, what now for Notre Dame?
That’s the easy question to ask a day after Notre Dame saw their perfect season and title hopes go up in smoke as they were grilled southwestern style by a more physical, athletic, skilled and healthy Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Comparing the aftermath of another undefeated regular season ending on an unfulfilled note under Brian Kelly between this season and the 2012 season will inevitably serve up some similar questions about the state of the program. But are any of those questions truly legitimate years later?
There will be plenty of comparison between this 30-3 loss to Clemson and the 42-14 smackdown against Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. Notre Dame was clearly at a disadvantage with its roster compared to their counterpart in each of those games. Against Alabama, the Crimson Tide were just bigger and stronger. As a result, Kelly has taken measures to improve his own team’s size and athleticism through recruiting, and Notre Dame has become an arguably better team and program because of it.
Against Clemson, Notre Dame’s shortcomings on the roster were once again evident, and not just because of notable injuries to key players like Julian Love missing the second quarter. If anything, the performance against Clemson showed Notre Dame may have improved its top-line talent, but it could benefit from improving the depth on the roster. Where Clemson was able to adjust for the absence of one of its top defensive players, the suspended Dexter Lawrence, Notre Dame was not equipped to overcome the loss of Love. Once Love left the game, Clemson took to the air attacking the position. Not coincidentally, Clemson scored two long touchdowns and closed the half with a third touchdown from 19 yards to take a commanding lead going to halftime, with all of the damage being done in the passing game.
If Notre Dame continues to improve its roster as a result of this latest loss, the Irish will remain in the playoff discussion in future seasons. But for now, Notre Dame and Kelly will have no choice but to endure the obvious reactions from national pundits and critics of Notre Dame. Comments about why Notre Dame needs to join a conference were popping up all over the Twittersphere at halftime of the Cotton Bowl. It tends to be the first line of defense for any Notre Dame critic who looks for a reason to suggest Notre Dame didn’t belong in the four-team College Football Playoff to begin with. But this result will not force Notre Dame to re-evaluate its place in the college football landscape, nor should it.
The main focus for Kelly is what do you do next?
Perhaps the question is whether or not Kelly will see much reason to change his approach with the program. Keep in mind this playoff field saw both Alabama and Clemson as lopsided favorites, almost regardless of their opponents in any playoff field you could imagine. All season long, Alabama and Clemson were perceived to be the two absolute best college football programs on a collision course for the national championship game for a third time in the playoff era. Should there be any shame in losing to one of these teams on their way to the national championship? Of course not, however you have to wonder how much losing by 27 points stings inside the mind of Kelly and the rest of the program.
Kelly changed his tune this season after facing plenty of scrutiny over how he handled himself in previous seasons. As a result, Notre Dame went 12-0 and earned a spot in the playoff. Can Notre Dame get better? Absolutely, because there is clearly room for improvement. But does Notre Dame need to change much to get another crack at the playoff? Perhaps not.