Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said the No. 2 Fighting Irish are “without question” one of the top four teams in the country, even after losing to No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game 34-10.
The Irish beat Clemson 47-40 in double overtime in November, but their performance on Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, was far different, as they fell behind early and could not make it a game after halftime.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who missed the first Notre Dame game after contracting the coronavirus, was a huge difference this time around, as he threw for 412 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday’s win.
The Tigers also had several key defensive starters back, including linebacker James Skalski and defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who were big difference-makers.
Because Notre Dame lost for the first time all season, it is now no longer guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff. So that means Kelly has to start lobbying for his team, in the way Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher did earlier Saturday.
“We’ve got two top-15 wins,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a win over this Clemson team that was No. 1 in the country. I don’t know that anybody has a résumé that has those two wins, and we’ve played 11 games. That matters, playing 11 games. Testing your team week in and week out I think in my mind puts us as without question as one of the top four teams in the country.”
Kelly was clearly referring to Ohio State, which won the Big Ten championship but played only six games and needed the conference to change its rules about eligibility for the championship game to even reach it.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book echoed that sentiment when he described the physical and mental toll that sets in after playing 11 games versus six.
“You prepare every single day for so long, you go out there, you put your body on the line every single play and mentally it’s a 60-minute battle,” Book said. “I’m not the committee, but it’s tough. I don’t even remember who we played Week 6, it’s been so long, but that’s part of the game, and we are happy that we played 11 games and been able win 10 of them. I think there’s a difference, but it’s not up to me.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney also lobbied for Notre Dame’s inclusion in the top four following his team’s ACC championship win.
“Absolutely, Notre Dame deserves to be in,” Swinney said. “They’re 10-1. They played 11 games. They stepped in the ring with Clemson twice. Absolutely, they deserve to be in. Ain’t no doubt about that. No way would I punish someone for playing more games. That’s what we seem to be doing: Reward playing less games and punish for playing more. I don’t get that.”
Winning a conference championship would seem to strengthen the Buckeyes’ case — even though they played fewer games.
One day earlier, Kelly said his team might not even want to participate in the playoff if families would not be allowed to attend.
Book seemed to offer a different point of view Saturday night.
“We just want to play again,” he said. “We’ll see who we’re playing and when we’re playing, but we just want to play another game together.”
In the playoff, preferably.
“I think you look at the body of work in terms of what we’ve done all year,” Kelly said. “We obviously lost to the No. 3-ranked team in the country tonight. Wasn’t our best effort, but consistency — when you play 11 games and you have a win over the No. 1 team in the country and then you win against an outstanding North Carolina team, I don’t know that you need to look any further than that.”