Notre Dame, with its 897 all-time victories, 11 national championships and illustrious football alumni, is the grandfather of college football luminaries. But this season, in the College Football Playoff, Notre Dame is the grandson of contenders.
“We’re the new kid on the block,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said last week while sitting on a stage with fellow Playoff coaches Dabo Swinney of Clemson, Nick Saban of Alabama and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma.
Alabama is in its fifth consecutive Playoff. Clemson earned its fourth straight appearance. Oklahoma reached its third Playoff in four years.
However, this is Notre Dame’s first CFP appearance. It will meet Clemson in the Cotton Bowl semifinal on Dec. 29 for an opportunity to play in the national championship game for the first time since 2013.
Notre Dame won its last national title in 1988 when Lou Holtz was the coach and Woodruff native Tony Rice was the quarterback. Notre Dame aims to restore some shine to its gold domes.
“We certainly look at it each and every year as a goal for our football team. It’s a difficult one but one that we all look forward to in getting to this,” Kelly said. “We’re certainly looking forward to an incredible matchup against a team in Clemson and a coach in Dabo Swinney who’s been here four years, knows what it’s like, and we’ll have a great challenge.”
Kelly asserted that, for each coach in the Playoff, earning a seat on that stage requires a winning culture. He recognizes that trait in his upcoming foe.
“Obviously, when you talk about playing an opponent, it’s the ability to close games out, the ability to know how to win, and that’s Clemson,” Kelly said. “They know how to win football games. They’ve been winning.
“I think everybody that’s up here has developed and built a winning culture within their football team. You can’t pin that on any one particular player. That’s something that’s within the fabric of the football program that’s been built over time.”
Notre Dame may be the relative new kid, but Swinney acknowledged that the Irish will be equipped with much more than beginner’s luck.
“They’re battle-tested. They’ve been in some great venues this year, some unique places that they’ve had to go play,” Swinney said. “They’ve handled adversity. They’ve played with leads. They’ve come from behind. They’ve done a little bit of everything.
“They’re incredibly well-coached. They don’t make a lot of mistakes, and I think the balance that they have really presents some problems. … The experience they’ve had this year gives them every reason to be confident going into this postseason.”