Brian Kelly walked in the media room at AT&T Stadium on Friday night prepared for an argument. Once again, Notre Dame lost another big game by a big margin, and once again Kelly would be expected to apologize for his team's performance, for having the gall to play in a national semifinal but not win it.
"Look at the scores of the games Alabama has played all year.... You guys watched the games, didn't you? They made plays on the perimeter," Kelly said. "They have the college football player of the year who made some dynamic plays. We battled. We were right there."
Kelly is correct, to a point. Where as the 2013 BCS National Championship (Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14) and the 2018 Cotton Bowl semifinal (Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3) saw the his team out-manned and out-muscled up and down the line of scrimmage, these Irish largely held their own at the point of attack. Notre Dame played Alabama to a virtual draw on the ground (140 rushing yards to 139); Alabama did manage a yard's worth of extra damage on 13 fewer carries but, outside of a 53-yard gif-worthy Najee Harris leaping scamper, Notre Dame limited Alabama to 87 yards on 24 carries.
The problem for Notre Dame here was that playing Alabama to a stalemate on the ground didn't matter because no one in white could cover anyone in crimson, particularly DeVonta Smith. The presumptive Heisman winner caught seven balls for 130 yards and a Rose Bowl record three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Ian Book had to turn to tight end Michael Meyer (seven catches) and running backs Chris Tyree and Kyren Williams (12) because Notre Dame receivers simply couldn't separate from Alabama's corners.
And while Notre Dame's 31-14 deficit was technically an improvement on past performances, this outcome was never in doubt at any point. Alabama needed 12 offensive snaps to take a 14-0 lead, and Notre Dame enjoyed all of three drives with a chance to tie or take the lead -- when the score was 0-0, 7-0 and 14-7. In fact, the final score would've been 31-7 if not for a 1-yard Book run with 56 seconds left in the game.
Kelly's argument after the game, and it's hard to call it an incorrect one, was essentially "No, we're not as good as Alabama or Clemson, but who is?" Notre Dame is trying to become Alabama and Clemson, as are Oklahoma, Ohio State (Sugar Bowl result pending), Georgia and a handful of other programs. Everyone else is trying to get on Notre Dame, OU, et. al.'s level.
"When they're on the perimeter, nobody has shut them down. Tell me who has tackled those guys. Everybody's got the same problem that I do. I don't have a unique problem at Notre Dame. You need to look at the scores (of) everybody that played against Alabama and Clemson."
The problem for Notre Dame is three-fold:
1. The Irish got it on both ends in this season in particular. The 2020 Notre Dame season began with a soaring 10-game winning streak and ends with a thudding 2-game losing streak, falling to Clemson and Alabama by a combined 65-24.
2. Notre Dame (as does Oklahoma) risks a Buffalo Bills Effect. Like those early 90s Bills, the Fighting Irish win just enough that the entire country gets to see a really good team lose to a better one.
To that point, this loss drops Notre Dame to 0-7 in New Year's Six games in college football's Championship Era (since 1988). Those seven losses have come by an average of 23 points, three of them on Kelly's watch. Over the last three seasons in particular, Notre Dame is 33-5 -- 1-3 against Alabama/Clemson and 32-2 against everyone else.
Furthermore, Notre Dame's last national title came in 1988. In the Championship Era (again, since 1988) the only program north of Knoxville, Tenn., to win a title is Ohio State.
3. Because Notre Dame is Notre Dame, people are going to be extra mad about the presumption "the networks" are conspiring to force another Irish blowout onto their television screens.
The end result of all that is that Kelly gets to sell Notre Dame as an unwanted, disregarded underdog.
Kelly has no other option but to keep building and keep trying, leading him to make this promise to his constituents that happened to sound like a threat to everyone else.
"We're going to keep getting back here," he said. "I'm sorry if you don't like it. I'm sorry if the national media doesn't like it, but we're going to back to work, we're going to keep recruiting and we're going to put ourselves back in this position again."