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Geyer: The case for complacence (for now)

| Monday, January 4, 2021

Arlington, TX — Theoretically, any season that ends without a national title is a failure; is it not the purpose, the ultimate goal, of any team to be the very best in college football? In the playoff era, that theory seems to stray farther from fact, drawing ever-closer to fiction as the FBS becomes more insurmountably stratified with every passing season.

For Notre Dame, then, a program perennially flirting with the likes of Clemson and Alabama but never quite cementing its place among them, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what it means to have a successful season.

In the Playoff era, the Irish have coquettishly courted the committee, floating in the void that is conference independence and using the regular season as ammunition to prove viability without a regional championship. Notre Dame has been able to do something other non-Power-5 teams haven’t — establish themselves as a viable top-four contender. Programs like Cincinnati or UCF, regardless of perfect regular seasons, have never even been given a seat at the table, as the Playoff Committee seems to perpetually relegate Group of 5 teams to secondary status.

Though it’s ended poorly both times the Irish have made it in to the playoff, at least the name “Notre Dame” is legitimately mentioned and considered in the conversation; there are many teams who would be overjoyed if the same could be said about their programs.

The unique season structure of football has spoiled fans, causing them to forget that in many other sports, every team but one — the best of the best — ends the year with a loss. Bowl games allow some teams to finish strong, but with the modern-day playoff, three of the nation’s four best teams end the year (or start it, as the case may be) on a sour note. That makes it easy to question whether or not those three teams deserved the place they earned in the top-four. Thus, the hypotheticals and theoreticals abound postmortem, making it all too easy to criticize without giving credit where credit is due. Such a reality is all-too-often the case with Notre Dame, a program many football faithful love to hate.

In Friday night’s post-game press conference, head coach Brian Kelly did his best to keep his temper in check — a herculean task in the context of the loss his team had just suffered and compared with his notoriously poor early-career demeanor. Despite his best efforts, Kelly’s mood flared — and rightfully so — as the interview progressed, he himself peppered with question after question about his team’s failure and the larger state of the program.

“We’re going to keep getting here, OK? And we’re going to keep banging at it. And you guys watched the game, didn’t you? They made plays on the perimeter. They made some dynamic plays,” Kelly said. “They had the [AP] College Football Player of the Year who made some dynamic plays. We battled. We were right there. So we’re going to keep getting back here.

“And I’m sorry if you don’t like it or if the national media doesn’t like it, but we’re going to go back to work. … These questions keep coming up like we have to reinvent ourselves. We were physical today. They were dynamic on the perimeter, like they have been all year. This is a really good football team.”

Kelly’s frustration was not misplaced. It seemed that almost every watchful eye characterized the game a Notre Dame failing much more than an Alabama triumph. That’s a pretty lousy reality for Kelly to be up against.

Alabama always produces remarkable football teams, but this year’s Tide talent is simply unmatched. With six first-team All-Americans, two Heisman finalists and the aforementioned AP College Football Player of the Year, they’ve been completely untouchable by every team they’ve played — not just the Irish. In Friday’s semifinal, Mac Jones set the Rose Bowl Completion Percentage record (83.3%) and tied the record for most touchdown passes without an interception (four). DeVonta Smith tied the Rose Bowl record with his three receiving touchdowns, and the win made Alabama the winningest team in College Football Playoff history (seven).

The Tide have been setting records all season. They’re the first and only team in FBS history to have a receiver and a rusher who have 20 touchdowns a piece. Jones set the single-season school passing record with 4,036 yards, surpassing quarterback Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama lore. The Tide have won 39 straight games when they’ve found the endzone on the opening drive, and they haven’t been shut out since November of 2000. They’ve had at least 12 wins in 10 of the last 13 seasons, and, so far, no one has been able to stop them this season. Unfortunately for the Irish, Notre Dame was no exception.

But why does last night’s outcome — with a 19.5-point line and the biggest mismatch in CFP history — come as a surprise? And why does it deem Notre Dame unfit for the Playoff or undeserving of praise for an undefeated regular season? There’s almost always an unbeatable team in the Playoff, and every program considered an elite one has run into that buzzsaw in their own time. It happened to Ohio State against Clemson in last year’s semifinal. It happened to Clemson the very next game against LSU. It’s even happened to the seemingly infallible Alabama, who also were embarrassed by Clemson, their beatdown happening in 2018. It’s an endless cycle of bullies bullying bullies.

So what makes Notre Dame’s loss any different?

The Irish fought to the end against a team that simply had more raw talent. They already pulled off the Cinderella-story upset against Clemson in November, and they just didn’t have it in them to do it again. Though the game was never that competitive, the Irish did what they could against college football’s very best players. They held the Tide to 31, the first time they’ve been kept under 35 all season and their lowest point total since the 2018 national championship game loss to the Tigers.

On the other side of the bracket, Clemson got destroyed by Ohio State — but does that loss completely undermine the legitimacy of Trevor Lawrence and the Tiger offense? To the national media, it really doesn’t. So why should Notre Dame be any different? The committee can never get two competitive semifinal games. So those contests, rather than speaking to the inability of the losers, should say volumes about the winners.

So, where does Notre Dame go from here? Despite not capturing a first-place finish in several decades, the Irish seem to be getting closer to greatness with every passing season. Two Playoff bids and two undefeated regular seasons in three years, the winningest quarterback in program history and an appearance in the ACC Championship in the first year to compete in the conference? Simply put, the Irish don’t need to go anywhere — as a matter of fact they’re exactly where they need to be.

With college football being what it is, Notre Dame’s bound to take a turn on the distributive side of the buzzsaw, rather than the receiving end of it. Such is the case for all of the nation’s best programs. Keep that in mind this offseason, and remember, reader, that patience really is a virtue.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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