You devote a lot of time to following your team. You watch every game, obsess over every nugget of information, and sometimes, you get a run of awesome play and are lucky enough to root for a team that gets to the College Football Playoff.
Then the team’s most indispensable player, its consensus All-American at its thinnest position group, takes a head injury on the first series of the game, and the opponent wastes no time taking advantage of it, by attacking the replacement over and over again, nuking any chance your team may have had, and you wonder why you bothered.
Such was today’s Cotton Bowl game between Notre Dame and Clemson, a game ND had to both play its best game and probably catch a couple breaks to win, and boy oh boy did those things absolutely not happen.
(I couldn’t find another place to put this, but consider this your obligatory mention of the tough breaks on replay. Every replay overturn was indisputably correct except for the fumble out of bounds thing, and damn would that have been nice to have, but it sucks to think you have a big play you desperately need, only to have it taken away.)
Julian Love’s injury was a disaster
It wasn’t hard to find the position ND could least afford a key injury. Pretty much everywhere else, even quarterback, the depth of talent and/or experience was there to at least somewhat cover the loss. If ND was Alabama or Clemson, they’d just plug in another five-star stud. But the Irish don’t recruit at that level. And once Clemson realized Donte Vaughn was in the game, they basically threw out the rest of the playbook and attacked the right side of the field over and over again.
Each of the Tigers’ first two long TDs were to Love’s side of the field, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a world in which the Irish’s runaway leader in career pass breakups made the difference in at least slowing those plays down, if not snuffing them out entirely. (Hard to remotely blame Vaughn for the third TD, the killshot right before the half, on which Vaughn did everything right, tipped the ball away, and was charged with the score anyway on a ludicrous tip-drill catch.)
Love returned in the second half, but it was obviously too late by then.
Clemson’s D snuffed out the offense
Pretty much every case for the Irish staying in this game revolved around ND 1) managing to slow down the Tigers and 2) getting the points they needed against a great Clemson defense. #1 obviously got crushed to hell by Love’s injury (and didn’t really improve after he returned) but that doesn’t explain #2.
ND’s first play was really good – a slashing 11-yard run by Dexter Williams. After that, a false start, a fumble (ND recovered) and a dropped 3rd-down conversion by Chase Claypool. The offense never seemed to get in a rhythm. Some of that had to do with Clemson’s defensive line, surely, but it’s not like Ian Book was running for his life the whole game. He had a semi-reasonable amount of time, but either receivers didn’t get open or he made poor/rushed decisions. We all thought he wouldn’t look like a deer in headlights like Everett Golson six years ago. But he basically did.
Another mark against Kelly?
Look, I’m not going to make an argument here one way or the other. But you know this question is going to come up again. Brian Kelly in the big one. He came up huge in 2012 in Norman. And he’s won several games, and been damn close in a couple others, that proved to be better performances in retrospect than they appeared at the time. And heck, just last year, his team beat an LSU squad that, in 2018, is considered an elite team by some (not all).
But this is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ world, and Kelly has been blasted every time he’s faced a highly-ranked team with something on the line since that October night in Norman. I thought this time might be different, with new coordinators Chip Long and Clark Lea and without a distracted Heisman finalist and a head coach that was on the verge of interviewing for an NFL job. It wasn’t.
Kelly isn’t going anywhere, but whether he’s ever going to ‘win the big one’, or even compete in it, is an open question. It may not be fair, but they don’t pay you millions to be fair.
This is really bad for the future – fair or not
Forget today. ND winning today was always probably a 1-in-3 shot at best, and all the advanced stats said so. That’s not the end of the world; Alabama and Clemson have been the 2 best teams in the country all season, and no one, least of all this fan base, has ever argued that.
What’s really bad is that getting housed like this has not only absolutely destroyed the chance of any 11-1 ND team ever getting in the playoff under this format (and, frankly, made it a long shot even under an 8-team format), but it isn’t hard to envision this game being used against the Irish to justify keeping them out even if they go 12-0 at some future point. This team already saw their ranking this year affected by a game that happened six years ago (there’s no way one-loss LSU is at #3, ahead of ND, in the first playoff rankings, if the Irish don’t get crushed by Bama in 2012).
Now the committee, which is comprised exclusively of conference cronies and only begrudgingly allows ND to help them make money in the first place, will have ample, and recent, ammunition if they want to keep the Irish out in favor of 11-1 SEC Team X or even 11-2 B1G Champion X in the future. Who’s going to argue with them? If College Football Twitter during the second half of this one is any indication, certainly not most fans. At this point, the media might not be hard to persuade – some of them (hey, Kirk) already wanted to ignore what actually happened and nebulously define ‘best’ to serve whatever their bias of the moment was.
I’ll still believe it when I see it, but even if ND somehow manages to run the table of road games at Georgia, Michigan and Stanford next season – and even before tonight, chances of that seemed slim – you know the discussion in the committee room, whether it’s supposed to or not, will include mention of this performance. It’s not fair – College Football Playoff semifinals have been blowouts 7 of 9 times so far, pending tonight’s game, and until today none of that had to do with the Irish – but discussions of ND rarely are.
I want to tell you 2018 was a success despite all of this – winning 12 games always is. Obviously, such talk rings hollow right now. Big-picture questions are soon to follow. I don’t want to think about those right now.