Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly watches play against Alabama during the second half of the BCS National Championship college football game Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Miami. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Notre Dame’s glorious but tarnished football season was not a mirage.
The totality of the Irish’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game on Monday is driving the needle on Notre Dame a little too far backward. The Irish looked outclassed, unprepared, poorly coached and totally out of their league. From the second series of the biggest game of the college football season, it was clear Notre Dame had no chance.
The debacle has left Brian Kelly and Notre Dame wide open to skepticism and scorn: Did the Irish’s 12-0 regular season even happen? Was Notre Dame a team that parlayed a few fortunate bounces into an undeserving berth in the National Championship Game? Is this 2002 and 2006 all over again? And how in the world is Notre Dame ever going to close the obvious talent gap with Alabama?
You can’t argue with those questions being asked. You get spanked like Notre Dame did on college football’s biggest stage and you deserve it. But the reality is that whatever Notre Dame was before the Alabama game, it still is today — an improving program that is losing talented players to the NFL and still getting better. The Irish might not go 12-0 next season, but they will be a contender.
Everybody knew Notre Dame wasn’t a better team than Alabama — the Irish came in as 10-point underdogs. But the result Monday night was exaggerated by a perfect storm — the 44-day layoff between games; Alabama’s advantage in speed and athleticism; and most of all, Nick Saban’s ability to use six weeks of preparation to his advantage like no other coach in college football.
This isn’t the first time Saban has made a quality opponent look worse than it is in a big game. Saban is 4-0 in national championship games — his teams never trailed in any of them. In his last four bowl games, Saban has led at halftime by combined score of 89-6. In 2011, Alabama threw an 11-1 Michigan State team around like a rag doll in the Capital One Bowl, leading 28-9 at halftime and winning 49-7. The next season the Spartans went 11-3 and beat Georgia from the vaunted SEC in the Outback Bowl.
Last season the Crimson Tide lost at home to LSU in the regular season. With six weeks to prepare for the BCS title game, Alabama made that earlier result look like a fluke, dominating LSU in a 21-0 victory that also was not as close as the score indicates.
This is a guy who makes the most of his spare time. Saban’s two-year stint with the Dolphins ended in failure. But with a bye week to prepare in 2006, Saban’s 1-6 Dolphins whipped the 7-0 Bears 31-13 at Soldier Field. Later that season, Saban’s 5-7 Dolphins beat Bill Belichick and the Patriots 21-0 — one of only two times the Patriots have been shut out in 12 seasons under Belichick. (The Patriots won their next 19 regular-season games, averaging 36.5 points.)
And when Saban has the horses and even more time to prepare, the effect is that much greater. That’s what Notre Dame ran into Monday night. The result was predictable. That it was a rout was not that surprising. That Notre Dame looked like it didn’t belong was an exaggeration.
There’s no doubt that Alabama will be back. But it’s not like Notre Dame has to learn how to play football all over again. And with the BCS playoff system in 2014, the era of six-week layoffs before the National Championshp Game will be over. That alone will help level the playing field for any team that challenges Nick Saban in the biggest game of the season.