Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame legacy missing big win

After a decade in which Brian Kelly has, once again, made 10-win seasons, bowl victories and top-five rankings somewhat routine at Notre Dame, it’s easy to forget its previous 15-year run of irrelevance.

Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis combined for a .576 win percentage, one bowl victory and endless talk about how the Fighting Irish would, except in old movies, never matter again.

So make no mistake, Kelly has been a Golden Dome-sent gift for Notre Dame. The Irish are good nearly every year, really good in some, and if nothing else, almost always in the national discussion in both big games and recruiting. They matter. 

They just haven’t won a big one, a really big one, in a long, long time (they are 1-18 against top-five teams since 1999).

No. 1 Clemson visits South Bend on Saturday, giving Kelly’s fourth-ranked team another crack at proving it belongs not just among the nation’s top teams, but in that rarified air of the elite of the elite. 

Considering the two teams could stage a rematch in December’s ACC title game, this isn’t must-win for the 6-0 Irish’s playoff or title hopes. A victory would be more emotional than anything else.

Beating a great team, especially from the Southeast, is about the only thing that has eluded Kelly’s program. And until you can beat those kinds of teams — namely Alabama, Clemson and Georgia — you can’t win a national title. 

Kelly has taken Notre Dame to one BCS title game (a 42-14 loss to Alabama to end the 2012 season) and one College Football Playoff (a 30-3 semifinal defeat to Clemson in 2018).

Notre Dame Fighting Irish QB Ian Book (12) talks with coach Brian Kelly on the sideline during a game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 24, 2020. (Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There have been numerous regular season shortfalls too, everything from nail-biters to blowouts. 

The Irish have had close losses to Georgia in both 2019 (23-17) and 2017 (20-19); a 41-8 blowout loss at Miami in 2017; a 50-47 double-overtime heartbreaker to Texas in 2016; a 24-22 loss in a thriller in a downpour at Clemson in 2015; and a 31-27 defeat to Florida State in 2014. 

Notre Dame has beaten good teams, mostly highly ranked Michigan, Michigan State, Stanford and USC clubs. 

Other than a 30-13 victory in 2012 of No. 8 Oklahoma in Norman though, these huge intersectional matchup games haven’t worked out. That Notre Dame has gotten to this point — which is higher than many critics ever allowed for — is commendable. The final peak is still there to scale though. 

Brian Kelly wants no part of this discussion, this narrative, this storyline, of course. All of that is understandable. 

“This game, it’s not the end-all for us,” Kelly said this week. “We could win this game, but you could lose to [Boston College the following game] and this doesn’t mean anything. 

“It’s about consistency in performance, which we’re well on our way to checking that box,” he continued. “We’ve shown an incredible consistency as a football team of winning week in and week out. Look, you want to win these games, there’s no doubt, but we can’t be overly emotional about this football game and lose sight of the fact that we’ve got five more games to play.”

This is exactly what Nick Saban would say. Maybe not Dabo Swinney, who for years obsessed about the meaning of “little ole Clemson” finally getting past Florida State or an SEC powerhouse and even installed a graveyard next to the football facility to commemorate victories over ranked opponents. 

That’s fine, Dabo is Dabo. Kelly doesn’t need to add hype to a game that will be decided by execution, not media and fan angles.

“We can’t empty the tank and say, ‘Hey, we’ve beat Clemson, we’ve arrived,’” Kelly said. “No, we haven’t.”

The proof of that is the Irish have consistently lost these big showdowns, yet the program has gotten stronger and stronger anyway. That loss to Texas didn’t send the Irish reeling. It’s the Longhorns who aren’t good. Same with Miami. And when Notre Dame beat Florida State, 42-26, earlier this year, it wasn’t even considered a big game.

Kelly has one of the strongest “programs” in the country. Talent comes in, talent goes out and the Irish are consistently good. In 2016, Notre Dame was injury-plagued and finished a dreadful 4-8. Yet the strength of the system treated it like a speed bump, not a derailment. 

They are 39-6 since. 

There isn’t much more that Notre Dame fans can reasonably ask for. Except, well …

“I know this is the No. 1 team in the country, our guys know it’s the No. 1 team in the country,” Kelly said. “They’re excited about that opportunity, but it counts as one.”

True. It’s all true and rational. But since when has college football been rational? Which is why a win over No. 1 Clemson, even sans Trevor Lawrence, sure wouldn’t hurt.

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