Monday, January 18

Can Brian Kelly reverse Notre Dame’s terrible record against top-ranked teams?

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked the big game question again during his media presence before Friday’s college football playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama.

“I mean, we are knocking on the door every year playing great teams and great opponents,” Kelly responded. “There are elite soccer teams. I don’t know why this narrative keeps popping up when we’re always at games.”

Kelly then answered the question about that narrative himself.

“We have not won a national championship, that is correct. I am not going to change the record,” he said. “But we are there every year, and we are doing it like everyone else. And only one team can celebrate at the end of the year.”

Notre Dame won its last national championship in 1988, and the narrative exists because of missed opportunities from the big games since then. Sporting News takes a closer look at those missed opportunities against the top five teams before the next opportunity against Crimson Tide.

Pre-BCS reputation (1989-1997)

The Irish won their last national championship in 1988 with Lou Holtz and maintained a highly reputable reputation during their final season in 1996.

From 1989-96, Notre Dame compiled a 7-5 record against the top five teams, including a 4-3 record in regular season top-five matchups and a 2-3 record in bowl games. The highlight was the victory against Florida State in Game of the Century in 1993.

A look at those matchups (* denotes bowling)

1989No. 1 Notre Dame24No. 2 Michigan19
1989 *No. 1 Coloradotwenty-oneNo. 4 Notre Dame6
1990No. 1 Notre Dame28No. 4 Michigan24
1990 *No. 1 Colorado10No. 5 Notre Dame9
1991No. 3 Michigan24No. 7 Notre Dame14
1991 *No. 18 Notre Dame39No. 3 Florida28
1992 *No. 5 Notre Dame28No. 4 Texas Am3
1993No. 11 Notre Dame27No. 3 Michigan2. 3
1993No. 2 Notre Dame31No. 1 State of Florida24
1994 *No. 4 Colorado41Our lady24
nineteen ninety-fiveNo. 17 Notre Dame38No. 5 USC10
nineteen ninety-sixNo. 4 Ohio State29No. 5 Notre Damesixteen

That’s a consistent track record of success against the competition in the top five. The loss to Ohio State in 1996, however, heralded the downfall to come in the BCS era.

BCS before Brian Kelly (1998-2009)

The Irish examined three coaches in the BCS era – Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis – and this is where the big hits came in.

From 1997 to 2009, Notre Dame was 2-14 against the top five teams. Both wins were against Michigan’s top five teams in the regular season. Five of those losses were to USC, and that included the “Bush Push” game in 2005.

A look at those matchups (* denotes bowling)

1998No. 22 Notre Dame36No. 5 Michigantwenty
1999No. 3 Tennessee38No. 24 Notre Dame14
2009No. 1 Nebraska27No. 23 Notre Dame24
2000 *No. 5 State of Oregon41No. 10 Notre Dame9
2001No. 5 Nebraska27No. 17 Notre Dame17
2003No. 5 Michigan38No. 15 Notre Dame0
2003No. 5 USCFour. FiveOur lady14
2003No. 5 State of Florida37Our lady0
2004No. 1 USC41Our lady10
2005No. 20 Notre Dame17No. 3 Michigan10
2005No. 1 USC3. 4No. 9 Notre Dame31
2005 *No. 4 Ohio State3. 4No. 5 Notre Dametwenty
2006No. 3 USC44No. 6 Notre Dame24
2006 *No. 4 LSU41No. 11 Notre Dame14
2007No. 5 Boston College27Our lady14
2008No. 5 USC38Our lady3

The only top-five meeting in that stretch was the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on January 2, 2006. The Irish also had broken defeats in BCS in the bowl to Oregon State and LSU in that stretch.

Brian Kelly’s record against the top five teams

The Irish beat No. 1 Clemson 47-40 on November 7 this season, but that marked the first win against a team in the top-five under Kelly, who took over in 2010.

Kelly is right about the opponents. Notre Dame has faced seven top-five opponents since Kelly took over, and the Irish were ranked in the top five in five of those games.

However, the results have followed a similar pattern (* denotes BCS championship, ** denotes CFP semifinal, *** denotes ACC championship).

2011No. 4 Stanford28No. 22 Notre Dameeleven
2012 *No. 2 Alabama42No. 1 Notre Dame14
2014No. 2 State of Florida31No. 5 Notre Dame27
2018 **No. 2 Clemson30No. 3 Notre Dame3
2019No. 3 Georgia2. 3No. 7 Notre Dame17
2020No. 4 Notre Dame47No. 1 Clemson40
2020 ***No. 4 Clemson3. 4No. 2 Notre Dame10

Expanding it further, Kelly is 3-8 against opponents ranked in the top 10 at Notre Dame. Five of the eight losses were by 14 points or more, including a 28-point loss to Alabama in 2012, the last time Notre Dame played for a national championship.

What’s Next?

Add up those numbers from the BCS era, and it’s easy to see why the Notre Dame great game narrative exists.

Notre Dame is 3-20 against the top five teams, including a 0-5 record against those teams in bowl matchups. Alabama’s big win in the 2013 BCS championship game has not been forgotten, and that was the landmark of the game that sparked Kelly’s reaction in the first place.

“We are going to keep coming back here, and that’s our job,” he said. “That is our challenge every year is to compete for a national championship, and we will continue to do so.”

A win against Alabama would be a good start.

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