Brian Kelly did not know No. 2 Notre Dame’s regular season would end this week much before anyone else did. The Irish head coach learned the ACC had canceled a make-up date at Wake Forest on Dec. 12 only as he left practice Tuesday, and up until that point, Kelly had anticipated both Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) would make that trip and No. 3 Clemson would take a flight to Florida State for its own make-up game.
As long as both those games occurred, Kelly was looking forward to facing the Demon Deacons next week.
“Our earlier conversations were much in line with, if we’re playing Wake Forest, Florida State is playing Clemson,” Kelly said Thursday. “There needs to be balance. Everybody’s gotta play everybody.
“It wasn’t posturing of any kind of let’s get out of this Wake Forest game. I have no problem playing Wake Forest any time any place. Our guys would be excited about that opportunity, too, as long as everybody was playing the same amount of games.”
Kelly simply did not want his team prepping for a game the week before the ACC championship when its likely opponent might not be, and the Tigers’ rescheduled game in Tallahassee had not actually been made official yet before being pre-emptively canceled.
“The only thing that we would have probably pushed back on was that we wanted equity on the same weekend if Clemson was going to push back,” Kelly said.
Instead, as long as this weekend goes to plan, both the Irish and the Tigers will have Dec. 12 off before presumably facing in Charlotte on Dec. 19. If Clemson wins this weekend at Virginia Tech, it will secure the rematch of the Nov. 7 double-overtime classic in South Bend, a 47-40 Notre Dame victory.
If Clemson loses, then No. 10 Miami needs to win both this weekend at Duke and next weekend against No. 17 North Carolina to make the conference championship game. The Irish have already clinched the top spot in the ACC standings, no matter what happens against Syracuse (2:30 ET; NBC).
“As long as all things were equal from [a games played] perspective and Miami understood that they had a chance to get in but lost a head-to-head competition, then why not protect the championship game,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame may need that added week off to get its offensive line closer to healthy. Sophomore center Zeke Correll sprained his ankle in the 31-17 win at North Carolina and will be a game-time decision on Saturday, per Kelly. If Correll cannot play, then senior Josh Lugg will move to center and classmate Dillan Gibbons will get his first career start at right guard.
Fifth-year Tommy Kraemer could reclaim his spot at right guard this weekend, “if we had chosen that route,” but will instead be used only in an emergency situation, giving him an additional week to get back up to speed after an emergency appendectomy about two weeks ago.
When Kraemer does return in the ACC title game, Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn will have a decision to make at the pivot: Stick with Correll, a natural center, or turn to the better all-around talent and more experienced player in Lugg?
“We’ll have to evaluate Zeke and Josh at that position,” Kelly said. “We’ll have plenty of time to do that on the bye week and figure out what’s our best five. That’s a good luxury to have.”
i ranked all 127 FBS offensive lines and the group at #1 is one of the best we’ve seen.
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) December 3, 2020
Lugg will almost undoubtedly return for a fifth season in 2021, something that would happen whether or not the NCAA granted a universal eligibility mulligan this season, and while Gibbons may be more of a question mark, the Irish are unlikely to turn down capable offensive line depth.
Kelly will have many more such dilemmas this season than usual thanks to that mulligan. In particular, defensive tackle Kurt Hinish, tight end Brock Wright and cornerback Nick McCloud would all usually be out of eligibility. Kicker Jonathan Doerer has already publicly said he will “most likely” return in 2021.
“We’re not going to bring a kid back just so we have a good team,” Kelly said. “We’re going to bring a guy back if it makes sense for them to come back so they can parlay that into a better situation.”