Can Irish compete with Alabama and Clemson? 'Notre Dame is better than people think'

Yahoo Sports
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stands with his team before an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP)
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stands with his team before an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP)

NEW YORK – The day marked a collision of brands that are viewed as either obnoxious and omnipotent, depending on the prism of your rooting beliefs. Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series unfolding at Yankee Stadium provided a four-hour infomercial for the school, with the oversized television in centerfield blasting out promotions for Notre Dame’s academics, athletics and making this feel what it’s supposed to be – a Notre Dame home game away from home.

There are plenty of people that sneer at Notre Dame’s football independence, roll their eyes at the school’s love affair with its history and recoil at the sound of the fight song. But the main takeaway from No. 3 Notre Dame’s 36-3 blowout of No. 12 Syracuse at Yankee Stadium is that the undefeated Irish are not only on the precipice of clinching a playoff bid next week. With a coach who has resuscitated the program, two sharp young coordinators and a redshirt sophomore quarterback that seems destined to be the face of the program through 2020, it’s beginning to appear that the Irish have positioned themselves alongside Alabama and Clemson to make a multi-year run at the highest levels of college football.

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Get ready for that fight song to be stuck in your head, as Notre Dame is sitting on the cusp of a playoff spot with a victory over USC next week. And, perhaps, preparing for an extended run alongside the nation’s elite.

“Everything has moved really fast,” said Notre Dame redshirt sophomore quarterback Ian Book. “I just feel blessed to be in this situation. Our whole entire team does. Yeah, you snap your fingers and you have one more game in the regular season, and it’s crazy.”

That game will be at USC on Saturday, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Irish are double-digit favorites and have thousands of fans jammed into the Coliseum. USC (5-6) fell to crosstown rival UCLA, 34-27, on Saturday and will need the game to secure a bowl bid and, likely, help coach Clay Helton keep his job. Neither appear likely. The stakes are obvious, as a win would mean Notre Dame will clinch the program’s first-ever spot in the five-year history of the College Football Playoff.

“If we do a good job there and we win our game, then we would have won all of our games,” coach Brian Kelly said. “And then we’ll let people decide who should go to the playoffs.”

The other two teams that appear destined to secure spots ahead of the Irish are No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson. Notre Dame hasn’t been held in that high of esteem yet this season, at least conversationally, but Saturday could change that.

The macro takeaway of this Notre Dame tour de brand comes from the Syracuse coach Dino Babers, who remains delightfully allergic to coach speak. Having played both Notre Dame and Clemson this season, it was natural to ask Babers his opinion on how the programs aligned to potentially meet in the College Football Playoff would compare.

“Notre Dame is better than people think they are,” Babers said. “That’s a really, really good team.”

It’s unfair to compare scores in those Syracuse games, as they both unfolded with quarterback injuries that significantly impacted the tenor of the game. Clemson played parts of the 27-23 victory against Syracuse with its third-string quarterback. Also, Syracuse played much of today with backup Tommy DeVito after Eric Dungey left with what appeared to be a back injury. (Babers didn’t have an update on Dungey, as he said he was waiting for information from the trainers.)

Babers is the offensive play caller for Syracuse and enough of a noted offensive guru that the Orange entered the game with a scoring average (44.4) that matched the school’s most famous number. They left kicking a field goal with 10 seconds remaining to avoid a shutout and Babers washed credit over the Notre Dame staff, including defensive coordinator Clark Lea, who Babers said turned the game from “chess to checkers.” Babers added: “That was a fabulous defense he put up against us.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) hands off to running back Dexter Williams (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP)
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) hands off to running back Dexter Williams (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Syracuse, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP)

Notre Dame wouldn’t be here without the immaculate ascendance of Book, who filleted Syracuse for 292 yards on 23-of-37 passing and tossed two touchdowns. It wasn’t Book’s best game of the season – he’d entered completing nearly 75 percent of his passes – but the 463 total yards reinforced how he’s enabled this Irish offense to run efficiently and effectively.

Book’s story is hokey enough to snuggle right into Irish lore. He was an under-the-radar recruit headed to Washington State, anonymous backup behind five-star Brandon Wimbush and was inserted into the starting lineup three games into the season after the Irish offense sputtered. Fast-forward through seven starts – he missed last week with a rib injury against Florida State – and Book looks destined to be the next face of Notre Dame football.

Book has turned coordinator Chip Long’s offense – predicated on rhythm and tempo – from a tricycle with a flat tire to a sleek racing bike. And it’s changed everything, easing the pressure on the defense and special teams and giving the team a cohesiveness that’s pushed it to the upper strata. Notre Dame hasn’t had a star mainstay quarterback since Brady Quinn more than a decade ago, and Book, with a 7-0 record as a starter, is in the early stages of what appears to be a high-profile run at one of the highest-profile positions in sports.

“I think that’s right,” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. “He’s the quarterback at Notre Dame. It’s one of the most unique positions in sport, and when you succeed in it, the attention is pretty extraordinary. The great thing about him is whatever comes he can handle.”

The only thing Book hasn’t handled so far at Notre Dame was making weight last year, as he tried to compensate for being 10 pounds light by stuffing a weight in his shorts. Strength coach Matt Balis ripped him and and issued some punishment runs, all of which Kelly recalled with a hearty chuckle on Saturday evening. “That’s the only time I saw him get rattled,” Kelly said.

After Kelly told that story, he exited the podium with a giant Yankee logo. Kelly grew up a Red Sox fan, so it was only natural to chide him about winning in enemy territory. “We already brought home the trophy,” Kelly said of his beloved Sox.

And as Notre Dame looks to close out a perfect season, the potential for the spoils of victory loom this season and beyond. The key pieces are in place for that fight song to keep echoing through college football.

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