As the final seconds of the fourth quarter ticked off the clock Saturday night in Los Angeles, California, Irish eyes everywhere were smiling. Reaching the College Football Playoff was no longer a distant hope, far off like it had been after a 4-8 campaign in 2016 or a few more good games away after a 10-3 season in 2017. Rather, it is now almost certain that the 12-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will appear in their first College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014. While other Notre Dame teams under Brian Kelly have been dominant in certain areas, this Notre Dame team looks complete in all three phases of offense, defense and special teams.
While I am not a huge fan of comparing teams, there can be a strong argument made that this is Brian Kelly’s best team at Notre Dame, and that includes the 2012 team that went 12-0 in the regular season before losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. The 2012 team averaged 25.8 points per game and gave up an average of 12.8 points per game. This season, the Irish are averaging 33.8 points per game while surrendering 17.2 points per game. Moreover, in the eight games that Ian Book has started this year, the offense has averaged 36.6 points per game. The offense is without a doubt better than that of 2012 and the defense is not far behind.
Another thing that really has impressed me about this year’s team is how they have looked in their games with Ian Book calling the signals. In the eight games the Irish have played in with Book at the helm, only two games have been within 10 points. Also, in their three contests against teams ranked in the current College Football Playoff top-25 during that stretch they outscored their opponents 86-to-38. Those wins came over No. 19 Northwestern, No. 20 Syracuse and No. 24 Pittsburgh.
Even when Notre Dame has not looked at their best, they have found ways to win. That shows me that if put in a situation where the game is close, they can find a way to come through. Being able to have confidence in the team’s game plan even when trailing is very important for a championship contender like Notre Dame to have. Saturday night’s game versus the USC Trojans was a perfect example of the Irish not panicking when facing a deficit.
Trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, Notre Dame put together an 11-play, 64-yard touchdown drive near the end of the first half to get within a field goal. Then, on their second drive of the second half, Dexter Williams ran the ball 52 yards for a touchdown to give the Irish their first lead of the game. Stringing together two touchdowns drives with their backs against the wall is what championship teams do.
All in all, while potential matchups with Clemson, Alabama and other perennial contenders will be challenging, Notre Dame has a potent offense and stout defense that has proven all season long that they are no longer pretenders but rather contenders.
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