Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly bristled a bit this week when asked about Saturday’s showdown with top-ranked Clemson as “an important measuring stick” for his program.
At least that’s how a reporter framed his question.
“Did I say it was an important measuring stick for the program or did you?” Kelly shot back playfully.
Once the desired clarification was delivered, Kelly smiled.
“Thank you,” he said. “Now we’re accurate.”
This is Kelly’s 11th season in South Bend, and in that time he has delivered a pair of 12-0 regular seasons and a remarkable turnaround from the 4-8 faceplant of 2016. In September he was given a three-year contract extension through 2024, meaning he’s on his way to becoming the first 60-something to coach the Fighting Irish as well as the longest-tenured coach in program history.
Yet, no matter how many times one circles Notre Dame Stadium, there’s still no evidence of the ultimate prize, no Kelly statue to go alongside those bronze depictions of the five men who led national championship teams in that same job.
A breakthrough win Saturday against a Clemson team that will start uber-talented freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei in place of ailing Heisman Trophy frontrunner Trevor Lawrence (COVID-19) seems vital to keeping that pursuit alive in this strange 2020.
Then again, no matter who wins, there’s a solid chance these same two teams will face each again on Dec. 19 in Charlotte with the ACC championship and a College Football Playoff spot on the line.
The last time Notre Dame lined up across from Dabo Swinney’s Tigers, it suffered a 30-3 smackdown in the 2018 Cotton Bowl that served as a national semifinal. Swinney insisted this week that the game was closer than the final score indicated, but Kelly wasn’t looking for any consolation prizes.
“We played an outstanding football team,” he said. “People fail to recognize the next week they absolutely blitzed Alabama. Nobody talked about the talent gap there. Nobody talked about the coaching gap there. They just talked about the talent gap and coaching gap between Notre Dame and Clemson.”
A six-point underdog at home, even with Lawrence sidelined, Notre Dame will try to extend its 22-game home winning streak with just a fraction of the usual 80,000 capacity lining the stands. What would an upset mean in terms of Notre Dame’s multiyear ascension?
“There will be enough time to evaluate all this,” Kelly said. “There will be plenty of opinions, and pundits will make their own assessments. We feel pretty good about where we are.”
As for the program comparisons, Kelly referenced the “different business plans” of the two national powers. Since the start of 2018, Clemson is 36-1 and Notre Dame is 29-3.
“We’ll continue to develop our players in the manner that we feel is best for Notre Dame,” Kelly said, “and Dabo is going to continue doing a great job of developing the players that he has in the manner that he has. We’ll do what we’re doing.”