Opinion: Irish Fans Must Face Harsh Reality — Again

No matter how much people want it to be untrue, there’s a harsh reality surrounding the Notre Dame football program.

That reality is, the Irish are no longer the elite, top-tier program they have been in the past.

The even more difficult truth to accept? They haven’t been for quite a while.

This isn’t a case of a modern-day Notre Dame hater railing against one of the sport’s greatest, and most important, programs. The page-turning and dramatic story of college football itself cannot, and should not, be told without Notre Dame being front and center. 

Knute Rockne, “The Four Horseman,” “Rudy,” Catholic versus Convicts, Touchdown Jesus, the half-dozen or so legit national rivalries and enough individual Heisman Trophy winners to field their very own 7-on-7 team — the Golden Domers are an integral thread in the fabric of college football.

The problem is, Notre Dame’s front-and-center status when it comes to football is almost entirely the product of history — the past.

This past Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Notre Dame was once again exposed and embarrassed in a big game. Clemson dominated Notre Dame to the tune of 30-3 — a score that was not indicative of just how lopsided the College Football Playoff semifinal truly was. 

The Fighting Irish were outgained 538 to 238, the least amount of offensive yards ever in a bowl game for the team. They were constantly pushed around by the Tigers’ bigger, stronger and more athletic lines of scrimmage, and Clemson didn’t even have its best player on the field, with defensive lineman and projected first-round draft pick Dexter Lawrence suspended for failing a drug test.

To anyone that watched the game, it was apparent that Notre Dame wasn’t even remotely close to being on Clemson’s level. It also brought back memories of a similar beatdown an undefeated Notre Dame squad suffered at the hands of a team from the South — the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. 

Those two games are part of a not-so celebrated tradition of lopsided losses in marquee games being etched into Notre Dame’s bulging historical ledger. 

There are the pair of Fiesta Bowl losses (2005 and 2015) to Ohio State by 14 points each, the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, which saw Oregon State thump Notre Dame 41-9, and of course the 2007 Sugar Bowl which saw LSU pound them into submission by the final score of 41-14. 

In the so-called “New Year’s Day Six” bowl games, Notre Dame is 0-8 and has lost by an average of 21 points. That’s three touchdowns for all you non football fanatics.

That is not how an elite college football team performs on the biggest stage — but it is how a second-tier program does.

The vast majority of Notre Dame’s rich history comes from college football’s infancy, as seven of the Fighting Irish’s national titles came prior to 1950. Notre Dame essentially rolled up national titles in an era when titles were awarded before bowl games, when offensive lineman were around 215 pounds, when teams didn’t allow African-Americans to attend universities much less play for said teams, and before games were broadcast into every home in America via television. 

Hell, most of the Irish’s rich history occurred before TV itself was even a reality.

The same goes for Notre Dame’s Heisman winners, with six of them coming before 1964. The lone exception was Tim Brown striking the immortal pose in 1987 — one year before the Irish claimed its last national title — under legendary coach Lou Holtz.

The most memorable moments in Notre Dame’s most recent history are the “Bush Push” game against USC (a loss) and when the world discovered that Manti Te’o had been “Catfished.”

Not exactly moments for the trophy case. 

Ever since Holtz left Notre Dame following the 1996 season, the program has fallen well behind the leaders in the proverbial clubhouse — Alabama, Miami, Oklahoma, Florida State, USC, LSU, Ohio State, Florida, and most recently Clemson.

So why isn’t Notre Dame keeping up with the Joneses? 

The reason is a lack of talent — or more precisely, depth of talent.

From former head coach Charlie Weis (a Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells disciple) to current head coach Brian Kelly (a three-time Home Depot Coach of the Year), the issue is not recruiting and developing NFL-caliber talent — like Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert and four-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin who were on the 2013 team.

The problem is Notre Dame has maybe four or five of those guys, while the powerhouse programs have another highly touted recruit as a backup at almost every position. 

In Saturday’s game, when All-American cornerback Julian Love left the game with an injury, it had a crippling impact on Notre Dame.

But not having Lawrence on the field didn’t even make Clemson sweat.

Right now, according to 247Sports, Notre Dame has the No. 14-ranked recruiting class for 2019. That is respectable, but the issue is that Alabama sits at No. 1, Georgia at No. 2., Clemson at No. 5 and Oklahoma at No. 7. 

In fact, Notre Dame has had recruiting classes ranked No. 10 twice, No. 15 and No. 13 once in the past four years. None of those classes saw the Irish nab a five-star recruit. 

There is no doubt that stellar coaching will get you quite far in college football and make no mistake about it — Kelly is a Top 5 coach in this game.

But talent, and abundance of talent, being coached by the best, is what wins you big games and national championships. That has been the case for nearly two decades now when Miami stockpiled enough talent for two NFL teams, and Ohio State, USC, Florida and all the rest followed suit and Alabama and Clemson have now perfected the method.

Notre Dame is still a very good college football program — one with a proud history and one that will still win plenty of games.

But unless things change when it comes to recruiting, those games just won’t be ones that historically matter.