ATLANTA, Ga. — This is not about Notre Dame. It’s not about Brian Kelly. It is hardly about Georgia.
It is about logic, about common sense, and how they should not be discarded in favor of narrative as they so often are, including this week.
The “trends” have been recited repeatedly this week, by some of the voices with the broadest reach, some respected and others not: The Irish are 3-7 against top-10 teams in Kelly’s 10 years; Notre Dame has not beaten a top-5 opponent since topping No. 3 Michigan in 2005.
This all ignores a basic tenet of any sport, but particularly college football: It is supposed to be hard to beat top-5 teams, one of the hardest things in competition. They are at the top of the polls for a reason.
Yes, the Irish feel they were closer to Clemson than a 30-3 Cotton Bowl score indicated — though senior defensive end Daelin Hayes rejected the notion facing No. 3 Georgia could “validate” that claim — but even if they weren’t, that was an all-time Tigers team, one that will be looked back upon with the likes of 2002 Miami and certain other storied teams over the decades.
Falling to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game was a faceplant on a national scale, but the real shock should have simply been Notre Dame making it to that game. For that matter, how different would opinions be these days if Kansas State had not choked at Baylor that November and the Irish had beaten the Wildcats for a crystal football? Should that really influence current evaluation? Absolutely not, but it shows how easily-manipulated these cockamamie narratives are.
The claim that Kelly cannot push Notre Dame to win big games on the road fails to hold water in a similar manner. In a sport played by 18- to 22-year-olds, one with arguably more rabid fan bases than any other, one played with an oblong ball designed for fluke occurrences, winning on the road is notoriously difficult.
Should it be as bad as a 41-8 mishap at Miami? No, but Kelly began taking ownership for that debacle the next day.
“I’ve never given [big games] too much thought, because we play in a big game atmosphere at Notre Dame, but this one was a little bit different,” he said Nov. 12, 2017. “A number of these kids hadn’t played in a game of this magnitude, since maybe the Clemson game (in 2015). I don’t know if there were many defensive players on the field for that. We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys. I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”
By citing Clemson, Kelly inadvertently reminded those on the teleconference that the Irish have been competitive in those environments during his tenure. They came within a two-point conversion of a dramatic comeback in Death Valley that night, a year after a questionable offensive pass interference call cost them a win at defending national champion No. 2 Florida State. The Farm remains a winless landscape for Kelly, but Notre Dame fell by one possession in genuinely-close games in 2013 and 2015 against top-flight Stanford teams.
The Irish were not expected to win any of those games, yet each enthusiastically reminded why this berserk sport is so absurdly enjoyable, well, perhaps with the exception of the visit to Hard Rock Stadium. (Even in that blowout, being there was something to remember. The Hurricanes fans started a party 30 minutes before kickoff the likes of which is usually seen only in clubs with flashing lights along South Beach, and any honest observer had to give them credit for it, perhaps credit with a touch of envy.)
Every so often, some will claim winning on the road should not be that much more difficult than winning at home. Again, a failure in logic. Whether it is the comfort of known surroundings, the support of boisterous fans, or some deeper layer of young men’s psyches, home-field advantage is a known and proven reality. Consider just Thursday night: Houston went to Tulane as five-point underdogs, despite widely being considered the better team. An averaged set of half a dozen power rankings from national sharps ranked the Cougars the No. 65 team in the country, eight spots ahead of the Green Wave. Some of that contradictory spread tied to Houston’s schedule, featuring four games in 19 days, only one of which was against a patsy. But some of it also tied to the innate home-field advantage of renowned Yulman Stadium’s 30,000 seats.
Sure enough, Tulane won by a touchdown.
Georgia’s Sanford Stadium is actually renowned, no tongue needs to be placed in cheek, and it will seat more than 93,000 tomorrow evening, setting a new stadium record.
Setting a second college football stadium record in its second road game of the season is part of being Notre Dame. It will make for the 10th such record held by the Irish, not even counting their own home, rather notable when remembering there are only 129 such stadiums in the country. And yes, all nine stadiums currently fitting this description are still in use.
“It’s a lot of the reason why [players] come to Notre Dame,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s like being on Broadway. It’s a Broadway show. You’re on stage every game you play. It’s on national TV. … They know they’re in that spotlight and they choose to come to Notre Dame because they want that. They relish that opportunity …
“They don’t see it as pressure. They see it as a privilege. And they enjoy it.”
Kelly is right, Saturday’s matchup was always destined for a national audience, at worst relegated to basic cable. But there is an argument to be made the widely-held narrative around Notre Dame’s chances would actually be more complimentary if it had not enjoyed such success last season and in 2012 before that. If it had not beaten No. 14 Michigan with little trouble, No. 7 Stanford with utter ease and No. 12 Syracuse without breaking a sweat … if it had not knocked off No. 10 Michigan State — on the road, mind you — in 2012, had not beaten No. 18 Michigan and No. 17 Stanford in defensive struggles, had not gone to No. 8 Oklahoma — again, on the road — and routed the Sooners late … then the Irish would not have been blown out by Clemson in the College Football Playoff or by Alabama in the 2012 title game.
The national lampooning of Kelly’s and Notre Dame’s big-game follies hinge on those two pegs. Presume, as a theoretical example, both those wins against the Wolverines flipped by a touchdown into losses, and the Irish never made a title game, but were instead seen as still-so-close. This season would be viewed as a chance to break through and prove the strides made, not one portrayed as a chance to reaffirm shortcomings.
See the nonsense baked into that logic? The Irish would be given a better chance in Athens if they had been worse in recent years. This rhetoric is a direct corollary to that used to lampoon Kelly’s 3-7 record against top-10 teams and Notre Dame’s lack of a top-5 win in 14 years.
That logic is flawed. The narratives built on such are misguided at best, aggravating in reality, and intentionally inaccurate, at worst.
Beating the best teams is supposed to be hard. Winning on the road in college football is undeniably difficult. Doing so just once should stand out.
That is, after all, how many times Georgia has won on the road against a notable opponent under Kirby Smart, now in his fourth season as head coach. The Bulldogs lost 36-16 as touchdown favorites at No. 13 LSU last season, 40-17 as two-point favorites at No. 10 Auburn in 2017, 24-10 against No. 14 Florida at a neutral site and 45-14 as touchdown favorites at No. 23 Ole Miss in 2016. Their one distinct road win in this rise to national prominence did not even come at Notre Dame in 2017, that fraught 20-19 victory against a team ranked only No. 24 at the time, hardly all-that applause-worthy in many’s eyes, despite this week’s poetic waxing about that night.
Rather, Georgia beat Oklahoma in the 2017 Rose Bowl in a game to remember, then falling a play short of the national title, but imagine if that blown coverage happened to the Irish. Oh wait, it did in late December.
Past losses brought about by preceding success should not influence perception now.
This is not about Notre Dame, and it is not about Brian Kelly — tomorrow morning’s prediction will indeed lean toward those accustomed to the hedges. They are simply the latest subjected to narratives wrought with little logic and an absence of sense.
*Ends rant, heads to an Atlanta bar to catch up with a friend of more than two decades who moved to Georgia just a week ago. He’s an Auburn grad, and was at that ‘17 rout of the Bulldogs*