Notre Dame-Alabama and College Football's Status
Alabama has passed Notre Dame (and almost all of college football) by in more ways than one. (Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have been a step behind college football’s best for a while now. It’s been 33 years since their last national championship, a level of success the Irish haven’t been able to revive. While the record books, Rudy, and their raucous fanbase will always keep Notre Dame in the national conversation, many believe Notre Dame’s days as a college football powerhouse are over.

Granted, these doubters are probably right. After all, Notre Dame has lost their “only” two College Football Playoff games by a combined margin of 61-17. That’s about as badly as they lost the 2013 BCS National Championship (42-14) to Alabama, who returned to college football’s peak on Monday. Notre Dame isn’t even in a conference (pandemic necessities aside) for crying out loud.

How can college football fans take them seriously when all they do is get blown out by top competition? They were slaughtered by the Crimson Tide in another one-sided semi-final game. True contenders like Clemson and Ohio State would never suffer such humiliating defeats.

*Checks notes, realizes that Notre Dame-Alabama was actually the closest game of this year’s Playoff*

Welp.

It’s always been popular to love to hate Notre Dame. But that trend is soaring so high right now it’s only a matter of time before it crashes into the Hubble telescope. Yes, Notre Dame hasn’t been able to legitimately challenge Alabama in the last decade. But who consistently has? Clemson, Ohio State. End of list. Teams like Auburn and LSU have had their moments in the spotlight, yes, but that’s all they are – moments. Like Notre Dame, they lack the incredible consistency that makes Alabama so incredible.

But wait a second, didn’t Notre Dame have one of those incredible moments earlier this year? A game-of-the-century in South Bend against #1 Clemson, a return to Notre Dame’s big-game roots. Notre Dame’s epic double OT victory was easily the best college football game of the year; BYU-Coastal Carolina is the only one that comes close. And yet everyone and their mother was complaining how it wasn’t a “real” victory because Clemson was missing Trevor Lawrence and a few key defenders due to COVID and injuries.

I’m obviously not going to sit here and say that beating Clemson without those players wasn’t easier than going through the Tigers with them. The ACC championship game proved that point moot. But the way people talk about that victory, you’d think Notre Dame had just beaten UMass. Clemson’s injuries were a big reason why they lost that game. So were ND’s two takeaways, epic last-minute TD drive in the 4th quarter, and holding Travis Etienne to 28 yards. Thankfully, these critics were also incredibly quick to point out that ND’s loss in the CFP wasn’t legitimate because of the team’s injury trouble at receiver and center. In other news, the sky is purple.

BuT nOtRe DaMe IsN’t In A cOnFeReNcE, they say, without realizing that Notre Dame’s 2020 schedule was significantly easier after joining the ACC than it was before. The Irish were slated to play Wisconsin at Lambeau, Navy in Ireland, and at USC in addition to Clemson. The conference championship game argument is legitimate, but Notre Dame plays just as many quality opponents as other top teams. Just because there isn’t a shiny trophy and a bunch of sponsors attached to them doesn’t make winning or losing them not important.

All over social media are the cries to “ban” Notre Dame from the CFP for their two disappointing showings (which are the same amount as the entire PAC-12, by the way). How could Notre Dame get in when their only quality wins were black-and-blue Clemson and North Carolina? Didn’t hear any of those people when UNC was tied with Texas A&M late in the back half of the 4th quarter (for reference, Notre Dame had their 17-point victory just about wrapped up by then).

Yes, Notre Dame isn’t on the same level as Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State. Admissions standards and location (South Bend isn’t exactly paradise) will probably keep them from reaching that level. The Irish could pull off an upset of these teams with the perfect storm, as their victory against Clemson proved. They are certainly a good team; Notre Dame has won double digit games each of the last three non-pandemic years. Only LSU, Georgia, Bama, Clemson, OSU, Oklahoma, UCF, and Boise State can say the same. But they are comfortably slotted in the second tier of college football for now.

There shouldn’t be any shame for Notre Dame in that, even for a school with championship ambitions. In fact, Notre Dame’s failure is a testament to the state of college football as a whole. The sport has little to no parity, with those aforementioned three teams sapping up the vast majority of five star talent and every CFP title. Well, except for that one Joe Burrow had a say on.

Teams like Oklahoma, Florida State, Auburn, and Oregon have all had championship windows recently. Despite their talent and cohesion, they are seldom favorites against that three-headed monster. Notre Dame is in the same boat. Is it a good thing the Fighting Irish, one of college football’s historically successful programs, who still have outstanding coaching and facilities, cannot legitimately challenge for a national championship?

In other shocking news, Alabama is going to produce a lot of first-round picks this year. That Saban guy is pretty good, huh?

That’s not to say Notre Dame deserves to dominate every single year or grab every 5-star recruit on name alone. Nobody deserves that. Yet Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State (especially the first two) are doing just that. They deserve a ton of credit for that accomplishment. But it’s one that makes college football less intriguing to the average fan. In a sport overflowing with blue bloods and big brands, it should be impossible for two or three schools to completely corner the market on championship contention. And yet it would be a legitimate surprise next year if Alabama or Clemson didn’t win for the National Championship.

The fact that Notre Dame was blown out by Alabama isn’t just (but partially is) a Notre Dame problem; it’s college football’s problem. You can argue about whether or not ND deserved the #4 seed over Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, and others. But the fact of the matter is there aren’t four college football programs on the same level right now. Alabama already proved their superiority over the Aggies. A match-up with the Sooners or Bearcats almost certainly wouldn’t have ended differently. In a way, Notre Dame is almost punished for making the Playoff. That’s the reason why we see so many blowouts in the Playoff these days there just aren’t enough teams on the same level.

The narrative around the Irish would be much different if they were coming off a New Year’s Six Bowl win (which isn’t guaranteed). But would doing that put them any closer to winning a national championship? At this point, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything that could.

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