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Irish dethrone of No. 1 Clemson, but does it mean anything?

Saturday, the Fighting Irish notched their biggest win of the Brian Kelly era by outlasting perennial powerhouse Clemson 47-40 in a double-overtime thriller in South Bend.  

Notre Dame now sits at a perfect 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the last AP Top 25 poll. The Irish also conclude the 2020 COVID-19-altered season with what some might see as a favorable remaining schedule – Boston College, North Carolina, Wake Forest, and Syracuse – who have a combined record of just 15 wins and 14 losses on the year.  

The ND victory was certainly a “signature win,” but a bigger question remains. What does the win mean for the state of Notre Dame football – a program that, during the last decade under Kelly, has been criticized as being good but not great, or great but not elite. 

The short answer – the win means nothing …. yet. 

The victory likely earns the Irish a trip to Charlotte in mid-December for the ACC title game, and possibly a playoff berth even if the Golden Domers fail to capture their first conference crown in the programs 134-year history. The win also might buy Kelly a modicum of forgiveness for a bad loss in years to come. But, the truth of the matter is, the win isn’t program-altering and doesn’t mean much unless this signature win is just the first of many this season. 

Excluding Saturday, Kelly’s record in big games with the Irish has been poor. The 11th-year head coach is an underwhelming 20‑20 against top-25 teams, he’s 3-8 versus top-10 teams and 0-5 against top-five opponents. Plus, Kelly’s two appearances in the postseason with the Blue & Gold haven’t been competitive. In 2012, Kelly took Notre Dame to the BCS title game – an eventual 42-14 loss to Alabama to end the season. In 2018, ND found itself on the losing end of a 30-3 College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with these same Clemson Tigers.

While Kelly’s shortfalls to Clemson and Alabama are the most talked about – because they happened on the biggest of stages – there have been other Irish losses suffered at the hands of other blue-chip programs that cannot be forgotten. Notre Dame has dropped close ones to Georgia in both 2019 (23-17) and 2017 (20-19); suffered a 41-8 trouncing at Miami in 2017; a devastating 50-47 double-overtime decision to Texas in their 2016 season opener; a 24-22 loss to national finalist Clemson in 2015; and a 31-27 defeat to a Jameis Winston led Florida State team in 2014. ND was also dominated by Urban Myer’s Ohio State squad during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl.

Prior to Saturday night, Kelly’s strongest win was arguably a 2012 30-13 road win in Norman, Oklahoma over the then No. 8 Sooners.

By no means is Brian Kelly a “bad” coach. Over the last decade 10-win seasons, bowl victories, top-five rankings, and pushes for the postseason have become commonplace – and in 2020 all three have a chance to occur once again. Additionally, Kelly has been on the winning side of multiple rivalry games against Michigan, Michigan State, and USC over the last decade. 

That said, Kelly is falling woefully short of the “championship or bust” mentality that he and many other coaches routinely face. While the pressure to win in major college football is not uncommon, there is a different type of pressure experienced by football coaches in South Bend – a self-inflicted pressure – where winning on the gridiron isn’t just important, it’s everything.  

The Irish play a nationally televised game every week thanks to a multi-million-dollar deal with broadcast juggernaut NBC Sports. They play as an independent (when not in a global pandemic) so the Irish can play a more challenging, bi-coastal schedule (and not have to share their media revenue). Notre Dame also routinely recruits some of the most heralded high school prospects in the country every year. These luxuries coupled with the fact that Notre Dame is currently the sixth winningest program in college football history, and has, at times, been led by some of the best to ever coach at the collegiate level – Knute Rockne; Lou Holtz; Ara Parseghian; Frank Leahy; and Dan Devine to name a few – forces Notre Dame to play with a self-imposed target on their collective back every year. 

Saturday, for the first time in a long time, Kelly and the Irish rose to the occasion and performed as is demanded and ultimately expected. 

The win was far from perfect, but it was impressive nonetheless. In earning the win, Notre Dame got off to an electric start; overcame a handful of dropped passes and costly penalties and a devastating fumble through the endzone; it struggled mightily in the red zone and squandered a lead late in the contest; but ultimately, they won the game against a supremely talented Clemson team. 

In the end, a quality win is a quality win, and Notre Dame certainly earned its first such win in quite a while. But this win is meaningless if it is not followed by equally impressive big-game wins in December and January. 

As the saying goes, “consistency is key.” For Kelly, he has constantly come up short when the lights are brightest. Only time will tell if this performance was an anomaly or if it will be the new normal in South Bend.  

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