Notre Dame received a shock in late November when its head coach for the past 12 years, Brian Kelly, left for LSU — and adopted a Southern accent to boot. To add insult to injury, he bolted for Baton Rouge with a potential playoff spot still in the balance.
While this may feel like a punch in the gut, it should be a wake-up call for a program that is woefully behind the times. The only true big-time remaining independent will find its success continue to wane if it does not take a hard look in the mirror and adapt. Here are five hard truths the program needs to accept as it moves forward.
5. Their last three championship/playoff appearances were blowout losses
In 2012, Notre Dame went undefeated on the strength of a great defense and faced Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. The Tide jumped out to a 28-0 halftime lead and won 42-14. The Irish also went undefeated in 2018, made the playoff, and were blown out 30-3 by eventual national champion Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. Last season, Notre Dame played as a member of the ACC because of COVID-19 and went undefeated before losing to Clemson in the conference title game. However, the Irish's body of work was enough to make the College Football Playoff. There, Alabama easily beat Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl. While the playoff has seen its fair share of blowouts, no program has had as lopsided an experience as the Irish.
4. Its winningest head coach left — even with a shot at the playoff
Earlier this season, Kelly became the winningest coach in the program's history. Then last week, with a potential playoff berth in limbo, he left to be the head coach at LSU. In the 1970s and '80s, the notion of leaving South Bend for Baton Rouge would have been laughable, but Kelly likely realized he had very little chance of winning a national title with Notre Dame. After all, he was there for these three blowouts.
3. No program lives more on past success
Yes, the Irish have won 11 national titles and are the fourth-winningest program in college football history. The difference is that all of the other top 10 winningest programs have won a national title in the last 30 years except Penn State (who had a perfect season in 1994). In addition, the other Power 5 programs on this list are required to win or finish second in their conference to have a chance at making the playoff, but Notre Dame is still able to circumvent this requirement as an independent based on past competition and success.
2. Notre Dame no longer plays the toughest schedule in college football
There was a period when it was simply understood that the Irish played the toughest schedule in college football year-in and year-out. That is no longer the case. For example, in 1989 when this statement was universally considered to be true, Notre Dame went 12-1 against opponents that included No. 2 Michigan, No. 17 Air Force, No. 9 USC, and No. 17 Penn State, as well as eventual national champion and No. 7 Miami, and No. 1 Colorado. The Irish still play a tough schedule today, but thanks to conference alignment, it pales in comparison to the SEC or Big Ten schools who make their conference title game.
1. Notre Dame's independent status could eventually be ignored by the playoff committee
In the 1980s, there were several high-powered programs that played as independents, including Miami (Fla.), Florida State, and Penn State. They all ended up having to join conferences, while Notre Dame is able to operate as an independent thanks to its exclusive NBC contract and subsequent special consideration from the BCS and now the College Football Playoff committee. That being said, the Irish have not been dominant in any way that warrants this leeway. To get into the playoffs now, a team either must win its conference or be a dominant one-loss team in a Power 5 conference, as Georgia is this year. The only team that does not have to do this is Notre Dame. I have to imagine the College Football Playoff Committee was dreading the notion of having to decide whether to put to the Irish in this year if Alabama or Michigan had lost. With conferences continuing to realign, the committee may start taking two-loss Power 5 teams ahead of a one-loss Irish team or treating an undefeated squad like an unbeaten Boise State team. It is in the program's best interest to join a conference sooner rather than later, especially if playoff expansion is delayed.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.