The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Notre Dame’s problem against the Alabamas of the world is also college football’s problem

Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly has led the Fighting Irish to its second College Football Playoff appearance. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer/AP)
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If those who love Notre Dame football need a breather from the groaning theme of Notre Dame flunking big games against the top tier in the 21st century — a theme given CPR lately with that mauling by Clemson — well, here comes a Notre Dame game that could serve as a referendum on something fresher.

It might exemplify the trouble hovering over college football itself.

How invigorating.

If the Fighting Irish are not competitive in their Texan Rose Bowl playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama on Friday, that could serve as another microcosm of the hardened tiers of a sport even top-heavier than normal. Brian Kelly’s very good Notre Dame would sit on a second tier, above most but decisively below the few, their great 20th century still howling at them in a sport of deathless pasts.

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A bigger thought would percolate even further among those partial to the sport: Only six programs have won the 18 playoff games so far in a concept that hatched in 2014: Alabama (6), Clemson (6), LSU (2), Ohio State (2), Georgia (1), Oregon (1). Four programs — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — have hogged 20 of the 28 playoff berths, with at least four each. Throw in Notre Dame’s two appearances, and that makes it five, 22 and 28.

Recruiting, that lifeblood determining happiness levels in American college towns, keeps intensifying the imbalance. Distances have dwindled, as in the rest of life (when normal, anyway). Alabama and Clemson lure even the far-flung more than ever. Ohio State lags only in playoff wins. The sport always has breathed with a large handful of kingdoms, but if the handful dwindles and variety withers, does the sport wither alongside?

For a look at the tiers circa 2020, check out North Carolina. North Carolina’s offense had a bonanza of a season, surpassing 500 yards on eight occasions, including two games in which it topped 700. On Nov. 27, it ran across Notre Dame and its marvelous Butkus Award linebacker, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Owusu-Koramoah had nine tackles, but it looks like everybody did some tackling.

The Tar Heels got 298 yards. Their last nine possessions went punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, downs. Their punting unit must have felt so overworked. It seemed they had run across a different tier. Notre Dame looked deeply impressive. Two weeks later at Miami, North Carolina would gain 778.

Hopscotch to Dec. 19, and Notre Dame ran across Clemson. With Trevor Lawrence available at quarterback, unlike in the teams’ meeting Nov. 7, the Tigers of the top tier got 541 yards but looked as if they could have exceeded that if the game hadn’t gone blowout by the third quarter. It seemed the Fighting Irish had run across a different tier.

Now they sound as teams tend to sound when coping with such occasions.

“I think it was more of just not being disciplined and being gap-sound, so that’s kind of what we’ve been preaching this week is to not make the game bigger than what it is,” linebacker Drew White said this week.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, also the new head coach at Vanderbilt, said: “A little bit in the Clemson game might have been guys pressing to make plays and not just singularly focused on doing their job. I know that sounds a little cliche, but I think what I want to point out is, just when guys function as one of 11, it streamlines their processing in-snap, and when you streamline processing within a snap, you’re able to play at your physical best because you’re just exerting your strength and power through your technique.”

Was it gap management, or are some programs just more skilled at gap creation and exploitation? Was it pressing, or are the calibers of the tiers an issue more pressing?

Next, consider that in the beautifully geeky stat of yards per play, BYU ranked first nationally at 7.84, with North Carolina third at 7.81. Tucked in between glowed Alabama, at 7.83. Clemson rained 8.2 on Notre Dame on Dec. 19. Notre Dame defenders speak of Alabama’s offense as if acknowledging another tier.

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“Yeah, I mean when you turn on the film, you’re probably going to see plays from some guys like number 6 [wide receiver DeVonta Smith], number 17 [wide receiver Jaylen Waddle] and number 8 [wide receiver John Metchie III], but obviously the defensive linemen, we just pay attention to the line of scrimmage, and I feel like that’s really the point of emphasis of why their offense has been so successful,” defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said. “If you turn on the film, you see that front five playing ‘bully ball,’ really just dominating that line of scrimmage up front and having their way game in and game out. Coming into this game, we understand they definitely have talent all around, but we understand the biggest challenge is going to be up front. Resetting the line of scrimmage and just dominating up front.”

Owusu-Koramoah said: “Every great player can be contained. Every great player can be limited in their ability. You know, you just have to find a weakness. That’s just been our challenge, all throughout the week, is just to find each and every guy that is explosive, which is nearly everybody they have on their offense, man. It’s, you know, their linemen. You have 22 [running back Najee Harris]. You have 4 [running back Brian Robinson Jr.], 6, 19 [tight end Jahleel Billingsley], 8. All of them are great players. Our challenge is to find a weakness in each one of them.”

Owusu-Koramoah also said: “It’s almost like you’re not really playing, you know, the guys that Alabama has. It’s almost like you’re playing the franchise (slight laugh). It’s like you’re playing the team and the program because it’s been so successful. It’s been so high-praise and prominent.” He explained, “You want to face the team that’s the best.”

And Lea said, “As the games get bigger and the opponent gets better, you know, when you have small lapses or small issues, they become big and you can get exposed really quickly.”

It would help the Notre Dame program, of course, if it did not end up exposed Friday. The funny thing is, this far into the 21st century, it would help the sport as well.