Undefeated Notre Dame is playing its best football in years
SAN DIEGO — Ken Niumatalolo has been a head coach on the opposing sideline 11 times against Notre Dame; Saturday at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego marked his ninth against a Brian Kelly-coached Fighting Irish bunch. The Navy coach's perspective on 2018 Notre Dame, thus, carries historical significance.
"They're ranked No. 3 for a reason," Niumatalolo said, following Notre Dame's 44-22 win over Navy on Saturday at SDCCU Stadium. "We have played Coach Kelly's team before. This is one of his better teams."
There's a magic in the sound of their name; there's also skepticism inherent when the Irish of Notre Dame come up in national championship conversation. The 2018 season marks the 30th anniversary of the program's last title, and for the better part of these past three decades, pundits have anticipated the return of the college football blue blood to the pinnacle.
An ambassador for the sport during its boom period commensurate with cable television, the late Beano Cook will unfortunately always be remembered for providing the quintessential clip of irrational Notre Dame enthusiasm.
That was a quarter-century ago. Ron Powlus did not win two Heisman Trophies; no Notre Dame player has won any since Tim Brown in 1987. The Fighting Irish didn't claim two national championship in the subsequent four seasons; they've played for one in the 24 seasons since and lost in the second-most lopsided BCS Championship Game of the era.
Another season reaches its stretch run, and the echoes of Notre Dame's championship worthiness have woke once more. The Fighting Irish appear at No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, begging the question, what exactly is different this time?
Notre Dame has been ranked in the top 10 four of the five seasons in what is still the infancy of the playoff era. Whether complete collapse or narrow heartbreak, November has been bad to the Fighting Irish. In 2014, they lost four straight to close out the regular season. A year later, Stanford's last-second field goal denied Notre Dame an almost-certain bid into the final four. A blowout loss last season at Miami effectively ended the playoff dream.
The playoff selection committee has been spared the difficulty of evaluating Independents against Power 5 conference champions through the first four seasons of the tournament, but that may not be the case this year.
Not that it's a tough choice. The Irish are currently in, sitting behind two teams that play this week in Alabama and LSU. Notre Dame will presumably slide ahead of the loser. A head-to-head win over No. 5 Michigan gives the Fighting Irish further leverage, particularly if the Big Ten Championship Game becomes a showdown of teams with losses to Notre Dame. West division-leading Northwestern plays the Irish this week.
Northwestern is the first opponent in a final month that could bolster Notre Dame's currently pedestrian No. 45 strength-of-schedule rank per Sagarin ratings. Historic powers Florida State and USC are languishing through down years, but Syracuse is a surprise at No. 19 in the first playoff rankings.
Who said games at Yankee Stadium with championship implications were done with the conclusion of the ALDS?
Notre Dame has much in its favor as far as making the field — including, presumably, the simple fact that it's Notre Dame.
Though not in reference to Notre Dame, College Football Playoff committee chair Rob Mullens called the selection process, "subjective by design." Notre Dame comes with intrigue that could understandably influence subjective selection. It's a national brand that piques interest, hence the continued conversations about its championship meddle for the better part of 30 years.
In an October game played between two teams on the other side of the country from their campuses, San Diego buzzed with the influx of Notre Dame excitement. A sold-out SDCCU Stadium was awash in green shirts. If this level of enthusiasm followed a regular-season game, imagine the boon Notre Dame's presence would have in one of the playoff games.
But then, mystique and excitement do little on the field. Yes, Notre Dame's a shoo-in for the playoff if it wins out: But what's preventing a redux of the 2013 BCS Championship Game? Who sees this Fighting Irish as being perhaps different than in recent years?
"I do," said Niumatalolo. "There's a great sense of focus on their team. They're really good in a lot of different places."
Niumatalolo's sentiment rang similar to that of Stanford head coach David Shaw, whose Cardinal visited Notre Dame on Sept. 29, and left with a 38-17 defeat. Shaw referred to the Irish as "the best team we've faced."
The 17 points Stanford mustered were right in the neighbor of Notre Dame's season-long 19.1-per game yield, keyed in part by an outstanding defensive line of Jerry Tillery, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem. But the Stanford game also marked a pivotal moment for Notre Dame's season in another facet. The Fighting Irish previously eked out close, aesthetically unpleasing wins over Michigan, Ball State and Vanderbilt before the return of Dexter Williams made an immediate impact.
He rushed for 161 yards against Stanford, including a 45-yard touchdown.
Williams again ran wild last Saturday, totaling 142 yards and three touchdowns, but it was another facet of his game that showed up against the Midshipmen that caught Kelly's attention.
"He's becoming a complete back. He got the game ball because of his blocking tonight," Kelly said "[Williams] picked up a blitz, took care of the blitz, came back around, picked up another player. Caught the ball coming out of the backfield. That was not part of his identity as a back."
"Having Dexter back adds a speed to our offense that we need," said quarterback Ian Book. "You know when you give the ball to Dex, he's going to do his job."
And Williams isn't shouldering the workload alone. Notre Dame gets reinforcements for the November run with Jafar Armstrong back in the fold. Armstrong added 52 yards and a touchdown, with a team-high 64 receiving yards against Navy.
Williams' return coincided with Kelly's shake-up at quarterback, switching out Brandon Wimbush for Book. Notre Dame's put up point totals of 56, 38, 45 and 44 since the move.
"He's tough," said Niumatalolo of Book. "If people are covered, he extends the play with his legs. That last third down, had a long time back there, stayed alive, stayed alive. That was a back-breaker."
Notre Dame's revamped offense plays a central role in its playoff forecast, as committee chair Mullens noted on Tuesday night.
"It was noted in the Notre Dame conversation, how their offense has improved in recent weeks," he said.
From the Pacific to the Atlantic and in between, throughout the college football nation, people are noticing: Something is different about Notre Dame this time.