Brian Kelly's team knows their next game will be either the Cotton Bowl or Orange Bowl on Dec. 29
Notre Dame started the season with a 24-17 win over rival Michigan and concluded its campaign with a victory over rival USC by an identical 24-17 score. In between, the Irish had some mediocre performances against less talented teams (Ball State and Vanderbilt) and some statement showings versus quality competition (Stanford and Syracuse come to mind).
Through it all, the common theme was that Notre Dame scored more points than their opponents each Saturday and wrapped up the regular season with a 12-0 record. The College Football Playoff awaits and the Irish are poised to use this stage as another building block for the program.
Notre Dame will have its chance to take a swing and no matter who is on the other sideline, the Irish should go into the game with confidence. But this is not a situation where - like at Alabama or Clemson - winning it all is the only way to make the season a success.
Just 24 months ago, Notre Dame was 4-8. There were rumors that head coach Brian Kelly’s job was in jeopardy, and after inconsistent on-field results and some well-publicized off-field issues, it would not have been a surprise if the administration decided to make a change.
But Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stuck by his coach. Kelly made sweeping changes on his staff and what resulted was a 10-win Citrus Bowl championship team followed by one that will get a shot a national title.
So while it may seem preposterous that a coach in his ninth season would be still building a program that is essentially what is happening. The Irish have had solid recruiting efforts in recent years, but a good effort in the semifinal round, win or lose, will open up doors to more of the elite high school football talent.
Of course, the Irish were in a similar position in 2012, when they were 12-0 and No. 1 in America heading into the BCS Championship Game against Alabama. What followed was a 42-14 drubbing, Kelly talking to the Philadelphia Eagles a day later then disappearing for several more days, and the star player getting catfished. Later in the offseason, the starting quarterback was suspended for academic reasons and the Irish quickly fell back to their pre-2012 level.
That shouldn’t happen again. With Ian Book as a huge upgrade at quarterback over Everett Golson, this current Notre Dame squad appears stronger than the 2012 group. Also, assuming things play out as they should on Championship Saturday, the most likely playoff opponent for the Irish is Clemson. In 2015, a less talented Notre Dame team took the Deshaun Watson-led Tigers to the final moments before falling at Death Valley. While the Tigers are extremely talented and the two teams are mostly different from what they were three years ago, there is no stigma attached to playing Clemson like there would be if Alabama was in their bracket.
For Notre Dame, it’s been a fun autumn. A respectable showing, one where they don’t step all over themselves on Dec. 29, should help make for more enjoyable fall days going forward.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.