The first five years of the College Football Playoff era haven’t brought many competitive semifinal games. Entering Saturday, the average margin of victory in these matchups was 22 points. There had been fewer semis decided by single digits (two) than by 30 points or more (three).
But I’m not complaining, because what the playoff has lacked in competitive semifinals, it has made up for with some of the most enjoyable blowouts in college football history. In 2015, Florida State lost to Oregon by 39 points while Jameis Winston forgot how to throw a football. In 2016, Ohio State decided that scoring in the postseason would be uncouth, as the Buckeyes suffered a 31-0 shutout loss to Clemson.
Saturday delivered the newest entry to the genre of wildly entertaining playoff ass-kickings, as second-seeded Clemson completely demolished third-seeded Notre Dame, 30-3. The score was 3-3 after the first quarter, and the Tigers’ backups played for most of the fourth. In between those two periods of quiet, though, Clemson scored four unanswered touchdowns. It took only two good quarters for Clemson to prove it’s on a totally different level than Notre Dame.
And these weren’t just any touchdowns. After allowing two plays of 50-plus yards all season, Notre Dame gave up two in the Cotton Bowl. There was this 52-yard pass to Justyn Ross:
Good ball from Trevor Lawrence. Great play by Justyn Ross. And they're both true freshmen. 9-3 Clemson. pic.twitter.com/JNmvc33U7j— Max Olson (@max_olson) December 29, 2018
And this 62-yard run by Travis Etienne:
Clemson just whooped ‘em, start to finish. It racked up 538 yards of total offense on an average of 6.9 per play. Notre Dame notched 248 yards of total offense on an average of 3.6 per play. The high point of the Fighting Irish’s afternoon was either their lone field goal or the moment when an eagle landed on one of their fans’ shoulder.
This result immediately conjured comparisons to a performance put forth by Notre Dame’s last title contender. In 2012, the Irish also went 12-0 during the regular season before getting pantsed on a big stage, losing 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS national championship game. These types of defeats are officially a trend for the program: The Irish have now lost eight consecutive major bowl games, several by gaudy scorelines.
But even I, a certified Notre Dame hater, feel these comparisons are a bit unfair. Six years apart, there isn’t much that connects two teams from the same school except where the players go to class and what jerseys they wear—and at Notre Dame even the uniforms have changed, as the athletic department switched from Adidas to Under Armour in 2014. The players are different; this roster is comprised of guys who were middle and high schoolers when Notre Dame got routed in Miami. Every assistant coach from the 2012 team besides one (defensive line coach Mike Elston) has changed, too. No school is innately prone to being good at certain things and bad at others. The problems of college football programs have causes, and you have to truly dig into what’s going on at each school to suss them out. At Notre Dame, there’s only one significant factor that links the 2012 team to the 2018 team: head coach Brian Kelly.
In nine years at the helm of one of the most prestigious programs in college football, Kelly has presided over more losing seasons than meaningful bowl wins. (In case you forgot, Notre Dame went 4-8 in 2016.) The problem isn’t the players: Year after year after year after year after year, the Irish meet SB Nation’s Blue-Chip Ratio, meaning that they sign more four- and five-star prospects than not, a balance that basically tells us whether a roster boasts enough talent to compete for a national championship. (Since 2014, Notre Dame and Clemson have the exact same average finish in the 247Sports’ composite team recruiting rankings, 11.8.)
The elite players Kelly recruits have been able to coast past the majority of Notre Dame’s opponents. And because of Notre Dame’s unique scheduling circumstances and relation with the College Football Playoff, a good Notre Dame team has a better shot of getting into the four-team field than just about anyone. Yet when Kelly’s elite players have faced elite players from other top-notch schools in pivotal games, they’ve repeatedly fallen flat.
Notre Dame isn’t flopping on the big stage because its players are bad. It isn’t flopping on the big stage because its schedule is weak. It isn’t flopping because there’s some innate Notre Dame-ness that causes teams to choke, or because of any number of things that you may personally dislike about Notre Dame as a school, an athletic department, or a fanbase. The common thread here is Kelly.
With little else to praise about Notre Dame on Saturday, ESPN’s announcers kept telling viewers that Kelly is different than he used to be—less prone to fits of rage that cause his face to turn purple. He’s more positive now. We were told he was a changed man, but the results say that he isn’t.