(The views of this author are not necessarily the views of Scholastic magazine.)
This time last year, during my senior year at Notre Dame, I typed away on this same keyboard following Notre Dame’s 11-2 season. I made the argument that Notre Dame fans needed to recognize the elite position the program was in and that the team could win a national championship in the next two seasons.
Now, after another disappointing finish, I am forced to recognize that the gap between college football’s good and great is massive, larger than I originally thought. Despite beating No. 1 Clemson in November and making another College Football Playoff, Notre Dame football feels far away from a 12th national championship.
The best teams in the country are too good, Notre Dame’s quarterbacks will have to deliver and the road ahead is hard.
Alabama and Clemson, the rulers of the college football world, have put up staggering numbers and seem far from decline. In the last six seasons, the Crimson Tide are 79-6 and the Tigers are 79-7. They have combined to win five of the seven College Football Playoffs.
Both Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney’s rosters are loaded with elite talent as well. This year’s Alabama team had 12 five-star recruits according to 247sports.com. Clemson had 11. Notre Dame had two. In the 2020 and 2021 recruiting class, 247sports.com ranked Alabama and Clemson’s haul in the top-4. Notre Dame has been ranked higher than No. 9 just once under Brian Kelly — No. 5 in the 2013 class.
If you need more evidence of the talent disparity, see Dec. 19, 2020 or Jan. 1, 2021. Contrary to what Kelly said in his press conference after the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame was not “right there.” They were outmatched by a more talented team. Kelly is right, though, Notre Dame will keep winning games and will likely keep returning to the playoff. Consistently winning games versus Alabama and Clemson, though, is a much tougher task.
Quarterback play will be crucial for the Irish moving forward. Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts/Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow and Mac Jones were among the best players in college football when they won a national championship.
While Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan will bring leadership and experience to the locker room next year, his stats don’t jump off the page. In 2019, he threw for over 300 yards just once — week two versus Central Michigan.
A lot of Notre Dame’s success therefore will ride on Tyler Buchner. The four-star from Southern California will hope to get Notre Dame over the hump and shake memories of underwhelming quarterback recruits Jimmy Clausen, Dayne Crist, Gunner Kiel and Phil Jurkovec.
Another challenge for Notre Dame simply comes in their upcoming schedules. While next year’s opponents are manageable, the Irish will lose about 10 starters, including four offensive linemen, two wide receivers and star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
In 2022 and 2023, the Irish will play both Clemson and Ohio State. Yikes. Being independent again, Notre Dame will likely have to go 12-0 or 11-1 with a close loss to a ranked team to make the playoff.
This time last year I encouraged Notre Dame fans to be patient. As I sat in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte watching another Notre Dame blowout at the hands of a college football powerhouse, I wondered how much more patient I could be and how many more times this would happen. The loop seems endless at times, and the light at the end of the tunnel can be hard to find.
While the gap between the good and great is massive, Ohio State and LSU proved that there is more than one way to win a national championship. They had a perfect storm of talent, elite quarterback play, a manageable schedule and some good luck.
Notre Dame has proven that they’re among the best of the rest in college football. To win a national championship, they’ll need that perfect storm.