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Notre Dame Retaining Hunger Element For Playoff Football

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Brian Kelly and the 2018 Notre Dame have a couple more steps to achieve football immortality.
Brian Kelly and the 2018 Notre Dame have a couple more steps to achieve football immortality. (Bill Panzica)

Although the chances of 12-0 Notre Dame not making the four-team College Football Playoff this past Sunday were extremely remote, head coach Brian Kelly had a contingency plan in place

He would have channeled his inner University of Central Florida — which declared itself the 2017 national champion with a 13-0 record that no one else had. Plus, the Knights had defeated Auburn, who handed consensus national champ Alabama its lone defeat, in the Peach Bowl.

“I felt like if we didn't get in, we were going to go the UCF model —- and I had already talked to somebody about a Brian Kelly statue,” Kelly laughed. “We would be the national champs. So a statue, and I would get on the ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign: 12-0 … I had already convinced myself that if we didn't get in, that would be fine, too.”

A 12-0 regular season is a tremendously special achievement, and achieving it twice as Kelly has done even more so. In his 11 seasons at Notre Dame, not even coaching legend Ara Parseghian (1964-74) reached 10-0 twice. Fellow icon Lou Holtz in his 11 seasons (1986-96) did reach 12-0 in 1988 with the bowl win to clinch the national title, but couldn’t quite get to 12-0 twice. However, Parseghian and Holtz also won national titles, multiple in the case of the former.

For revenue stream and marketing purposes, various paraphernalia is sold extolling a 12-0 regular season … but no statues are erected, at least not yet.

In his seven seasons at Notre Dame from 1934-40, Elmer Layden actually won a better percentage of his games (.770) than either Holtz (.765) and 1977 national champion Dan Devine (.764). So why does not a statue along the periphery of Notre Dame Stadium honor Layden's achievement?

Simply put, the exclamation point wasn’t added with a national title. The Irish were in the driver’s seat to win it all in 1935 after shocking Ohio State (18-13) in that year’s Game of The Century, and were No. 1 heading into the final game of 1938. Unfortunately, in neither case was the ultimate objective reached.

As the Notre Dame team files out of the locker room in home games, it is greeted by a Play Like A Champion sign that lists the 11 previous consensus national title winners from 1924-88. It does not even include the 1919 and 1964 teams that are recognized by the NCAA as a national champion.

Nor does it include the 12-1 team that defeated seven teams ranked in the Associated Press final top 18 that year, including then No. 1 and 11-0 Colorado in the Orange Bowl.

Same with the 1970 team that snapped No. 1 Texas’ 30-game winning streak with a 24-11 win in the Cotton Bowl, but finished No. 2.

Likewise with the 1993 edition that defeated No. 1 Florida State in November, but wound up No. 2 to the Seminoles.

Frank Leahy's 9-0-1 outfits in 1948 and 1953 also did not make the cut with No. 2 finishes.

The parameters to make that sign are crystal clear: Either you were a consensus national champ or you weren’t, which is what drives Kelly and his team these days.

“12-0 barely got them into the playoffs,” Kelly noted. “There's no accomplishment, right? That was just enough to get us in. Now we've got to go accomplish something. All they did was punch their ticket into the opportunity in the playoffs to win a national championship, so now it's go-time. Now we got in, let's go achieve something … that's a great mindset.”

Per Kelly, you can’t have it both ways: The staff cannot go on the recruiting trail selling that the standard at Notre Dame is to win the national title — and then be content with just making the College Football Playoff.

“They came here to be a national champion because that's the standard,” he explained. “They go 12-0 — they don't even get on the Play Like a Champion sign. You only get on that sign if you win a national championship. There's no significance of [12-0], so they get that ..To sit around and pat themselves on the back for being 12-0, that doesn't get them anything.”

Tomorrow: Part II, 2012 Vs. 2018


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