Is Notre Dame An Elite Program?

Today, Joel Klatt and Colin Cowherd were discussing Notre Dame’s recent win over Wisconsin. They’re both in agreement that Brian Kelly is one of the best coaches in the sport, but that he’s judged unfairly because his program is compared to Alabama, and when you compare anybody to Alabama, not just Notre Dame, they fall short.

And that’s a fair point: Alabama is and has been in a class of their own in college football for more than a decade now. It’s really not fair to compare other programs to Bama, because Bama Nick Saban, the greatest coach of all time.

But then why does Notre Dame still not get the same level of respect as programs like Clemson, Ohio State, LSU and Georgia? They’re not on Bama’s level either, and yet it still seems like people put them ahead of Notre Dame in the college football pecking order.

Well, right off the bat, all of those programs except Georgia have won National Championships in the past decade, beating Bama in the process. LSU has won three national titles since 2000, Ohio State and Clemson have each won 2, and of course Georgia hasn’t won one since 1980.

Notre Dame’s last National Title was in 1988, meaning they’ve won it all more recently than Georgia has. Yet still we view Georgia as a superior football program than Notre Dame.

There are a few reasons for this: for one, Georgia has beaten Notre Dame the last two times they played. But they were close games, so there’s got to be something else to it. And that’s the fact that Georgia recruits at a higher level than Notre Dame You can go check the rankings on 247 Sports: while Notre Dame’s 2022 class is currently ahead of Georgia’s, there’s still a lot of time left in this recruiting period.

But for 2021, Georgia’s class ranked 4th, Notre Dame’s was 9th. In 2020, Georgia was #1 and Notre Dame was #18. In 2019, Georgia was #2 and Notre Dame was #15. In 2018, Georgia was #1 and Notre Dame was #10.

Recruiting isn’t everything, but it’s by far the biggest predictor of success in college football. Notre Dame pulls in some good recruiting classes, but they’re not quite at that elite level. Going back a bit further than 2018, let’s see where Notre Dame’s recruiting classes have ranked nationally under Brian Kelly:

  • 2017: 10th
  • 2016: 15th
  • 2015: 13th
  • 2014: 11th
  • 2013: 5th
  • 2012: 17th
  • 2011: 9th
  • 2010: 15th

That’s an average of the 12th best recruiting class in the nation since 2010.

Now, for Notre Dame’s standards, that’s really good. Keep in mind they have higher academic standards than the Bamas and Clemsons and Ohio States, plus they’re a Catholic school. So we should cut Notre Dame a little slack here.

Where Brian Kelly really deserves a lot of credit is in developing players: while Notre Dame’s recruiting classes are not consistently top-5, Notre Dame has the 5th-most players on NFL rosters of any school as of the start of the 2021 season:

Notre Dame is right there with Georgia in terms of producing NFL players. Just one behind. And Georgia consistently recruits better than Notre Dame, too, as we just saw.

This is why, when Notre Dame and Georgia played each other over the past few years, the games were very close. Georgia recruits better, but Notre Dame develops better and that makes up the gap.

But the problem is, Georgia isn’t the standard in college football. As we went over a bit ago, Bama is the standard in college football. And Georgia hasn’t beaten Bama since 2007.

Being slightly below Georgia in the college football pecking order means you’re not elite.

The real issue for Notre Dame, though, is that they simply haven’t been able to get it done against top competition. They’re good at recruiting, great at developing, but they are unable to beat the top teams in the country.

And that’s why Brian Kelly is often not included in the best coaches in America discussion. Let’s review their recent history against great teams:

  • 2020: Notre Dame beat #1 Clemson 47-40 in OT in the regular season. However, that was without Trevor Lawrence, who missed the game due to Covid. In the ACC Championship, #3 Clemson got revenge and beat Notre Dame 34-10. In the playoff semifinal, Notre Dame lost to #1 Bama 31-14. After those two games, people wrote off the regular season win over Clemson as a fluke.
  • 2019: Notre Dame went down to Athens to play #3 Georgia in week 3, but lost a hard-fought game 23-17. Notre Dame also lost 45-14 to #19 Michigan later that year.
  • 2018: Began the season with a 24-17 win over #14 Michigan, who would rise all the way into the top-5 by the end of the season. The Irish went 12-0 that season, along the way blowing out #7 Stanford at home 38-17. but in the playoff semifinal, they got trounced 30-3 by #2 Clemson, who would go on to win the National Championship in a rout over Bama.
  • 2017: In week 2, Notre Dame hosted #15 Georgia, but lost a close one 20-19. That Georgia team may have only been ranked #15 at the time, but they made the National Championship Game and probably should’ve won if not for Tua. ND also lost to #7 Miami on the road by a score of 41-8. The Irish did beat #17 LSU 21-17 in the Citrus Bowl to close out their season. However, this was not an elite LSU team.
  • 2016: This was a really bad season for Notre Dame as they only went 4-8. They lost a lot of good players from a pretty loaded 2015 squad. But this is the kind of season people will point to as proof Notre Dame just isn’t an elite-level program. That season, they played no top-10 teams and lost to the only two ranked teams they played: #12 Michigan (36-28) and #12 USC (45-27).
  • 2015: Notre Dame went 10-2 in the regular season and went into their bowl game ranked #2, with their only loss being to #12 Clemson, 24-22 on the road. That Clemson team had DeShaun Watson and made the National Championship game. Notre Dame got beaten pretty soundly in the Fiesta Bowl by #7 Ohio State, by a score of 44-28. That was a really loaded Ohio State team that probably should’ve been in the playoff, featuring Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and Joey Bosa.
  • 2014: Notre Dame started 6-0 then went down to Tallahassee to play #2 Florida State, back when FSU was really good with Jameis Winston. The Seminoles won 31-27. Notre Dame also traveled to Tempe to take on #9 Arizona State, but lost 55-30. Notre Dame ultimately went 7-5 that year but beat #23 LSU in the Music City Bowl 31-28.
  • 2013: All Notre Dame wins in the 2013 and 2012 seasons were vacated due to “use of ineligible players.” However, Notre Dame went 9-4 that year including a 40-31 loss to #17 Michigan, a 35-21 loss to #14 Oklahoma, and a 27-20 loss to #8 Stanford.
  • 2012: This was the last time Notre Dame made the National Championship game, however the whole season was vacated. Still, they did have some impressive wins in their 12-0 regular season: 20-3 over #10 Michigan State, 13-6 over #18 Michigan, and 30-13 over #8 Oklahoma. However, many remember this season for the 42-14 beatdown loss to Bama in the BCS Title Game.
  • 2011: In Brian Kelly’s second season as head coach of the Irish, they began the season #16, but started off with two straight losses to unranked teams, USF and Michigan. However, they did bounce back in week 3 to beat #15 Michigan State convincingly, 31-13. They would ultimately finish 8-5, including a 28-14 loss to #4 Stanford at the end of the season.

2011 is as far back as we’ll go. Kelly took over in 2010, so we won’t judge him for his first season. Notre Dame had fallen on some pretty rough times by the time Kelly took over–really from the moment Brady Quinn left in the 2007 draft until Brian Kelly took over in 2010: 6-6 in 2009, 7-6 in 2008 and an abysmal 3-9 in 2007. During that three-year span, Notre Dame went 0-4 against top-10 ranked teams, and 0-7 against ranked teams overall.

But even during (and before) the Brady Quinn era, Notre Dame was getting smacked around by the top programs:

  • In 2006, the last year Brady Quinn was on campus, they lost 47-21 to #11 Michigan, who made the Rose Bowl that year. They lost 44-24 to #3 USC during the Pete Carroll heyday. That USC team would go on to beat that Michigan team 32-18 in the Rose Bowl. Then ND lost 41-14 to #4 LSU in the Sugar Bowl–an LSU team that had future #1 draft pick JaMarcus Russell.
  • In 2005, Notre Dame lost to #1 USC 34-31 in the famous “Bush Push” game. Then in the Fiesta Bowl that year, Notre Dame lost 34-20 to #4 Ohio State.
  • In 2004, Notre Dame wasn’t very good, going just 6-6. They lost to #1 USC 41-10.
  • In 2003, they lost to #5 Michigan 38-0 and to #5 USC 45-14. Plus a 37-0 loss to #5 Florida State.
  • In 2002, Notre Dame was pretty good, going 10-3 and getting a 25-23 win over #7 Michigan. However, they would lose to #6 USC 44-13 at the end of the regular season. This was just when Pete Carroll’s Trojans were becoming a powerhouse program.
  • In 2001, Notre Dame played two teams in the top-10, but lost both games: 27-10 at #4 Nebraska (who made the National Championship game that year), and 28-18 at home vs. #7 Tennessee. Notre Dame would go just 5-6 that season.
  • In 2000, Notre Dame went 9-3, but all three of their losses were to ranked teams: at home to #1 Nebraska 27-24 in OT, on the road to #23 Michigan State 27-21, and 41-9 to #5 Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl. ND did get wins over #25 Texas A&M in week 1 (24-10) and #13 Purdue in week 3 (23-21).

If we look through all those seasons and tally up Notre Dame’s record against top-10 teams, it’s not pretty:

That’s 7-27 against top-10 teams since 2000, a winning rate of 20.5%

And one of those was the Clemson game without Trevor Lawrence.

However, Notre Dame is 27-21 against teams ranked 11-25 since 2000, at 56% win rate.

During the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame is just 3-11 against top-10 teams, and again one of those wins was Clemson without Lawrence.

Kelly is 20-12 against teams ranked 11-25.

This is why people aren’t buying Notre Dame as an elite program.

They can beat teams ranked 11-25, but they don’t have much success against top-10 teams.

Let’s look more specifically against top programs in the country:

  • Notre Dame is 2-4 against Ohio State, however, the most recent of those two wins was in 1936, and the other was in 1935. The other four games, all Ohio State wins, have taken place since 1995: 45-26 in 1995, 29-16 in 1996, 34-20 in 2005, and 44-28 in 2016.
  • Notre Dame is 5-3 against Alabama all-time, however their last win over the Crimson Tide was in 1987. The two matchups since then were Bama wins: 42-14 in the 2012 National Championship game, and last year’s 31-14 Bama win in the playoff.
  • Notre Dame is 2-4 against Clemson, with the most recent win being last year’s game without Trevor Lawrence which I’ve mentioned quite a few times. Otherwise, you have a 34-20 Clemson win in last year’s ACC Championship, the 30-3 Clemson win in the 2018 playoff, and the 24-22 Clemson win in 2015. The other two matchups were back in the late ’70s.
  • Notre Dame is 0-3 against Georgia, losing the two regular season games in 2019 and 2017, plus a 17-10 Georgia win in 1981.
  • Notre Dame is 7-5 against LSU all-time, including a few recent wins in minor bowl games, but Notre Dame has never been able to beat LSU when LSU was actually good. The last time they met in a real bowl game, the 2006 Sugar Bowl, LSU won 41-14.
  • Notre Dame has had a lot of success lately against its historical rival USC, going 7-3 in the Brian Kelly era, but USC has really not been typical USC over the past decade. It doesn’t count as beating a “top program” if USC isn’t a top program when you play them. Notre Dame was able to beat USC during Pete Carroll’s first year at USC, 2001, but then USC went on an 8-game winning streak against the Irish, which was only snapped in 2010, when Pete Carroll had already left to coach the Seahawks.
  • Notre Dame has done well historically against Oklahoma, going 9-2, but they haven’t really played much this century. The most recent matchup was in 2013, a 35-21 OU win, and then you had the 30-13 ND win in 2012. You’d have to go back to 1999 to find the next matchup between the two, a 34-30 Irish win, but then there’s no games until 1968. 8 of the 11 matchups between Notre Dame and Oklahoma took place between 1952-1968.

The one great program Notre Dame has done well against is Michigan. But Michigan, while I have to say they’re a great program in the historical sense, they haven’t been a great team in a long time. In a lot of ways, Michigan and Notre Dame are very similar programs. It’s funny that Notre Dame is the only great program Michigan can beat with regularity, and Michigan is the only great program Notre Dame can beat with regularity. They’re in the same boat.

In Notre Dame’s recent matchups (let’s say during the Brian Kelly era) against Bama, Clemson and Ohio State, if we exclude the game without Trevor Lawrence, Notre Dame has not only lost all 6 games but been destroyed in all those games: the total scoring margin is 205-91. That’s an average score of 34-15.

If we include the game without Trevor Lawrence, it’s an average score of 35-20 and a 1-6 record.

So clearly, when it comes to the actual games, Notre Dame isn’t elite. To be elite, you have to beat elite teams. And Notre Dame can’t.

Now, I want to give Notre Dame a lot of credit for being willing to play anyone, anywhere. They’ve gone on the road to Georgia, Oklahoma, Florida State–anywhere. They play USC every single season, they generally play at least a few Big Ten teams every year. They used to play Michigan every year but unfortunately that’s no longer happening. They play Stanford every other year on average it seems like.

While Notre Dame has their share of cupcakes on the schedule, like any other team, they always play a very respectable schedule. This season alone, they play Florida State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, USC, North Carolina and Stanford.

Last season they played an ACC schedule due to the Coronavirus, but in 2019 they played at Georgia, Virginia Tech and at Michigan. In 2017, they hosted Georgia and then later in the year went to Miami to play the Hurricanes. And that’s on top of always playing USC every year. It’s not ND’s fault USC sucks lately.

The point is, there’s always at least one big-time matchup on their schedule each year. Part of it is they kinda have to do it because they don’t have a conference, but they don’t shy away from playing marquee programs generally speaking. It’s up for debate whether their schedule is actually tougher than playing in the Big Ten, but it’s definitely tougher than an ACC schedule, a Big-12 schedule and a Pac-12 schedule. It’s definitely not tougher than an SEC schedule, though.

But I just can’t get over their lackluster record against top-10 teams. You can’t be elite if you’re not consistently beating elite teams.

Notre Dame has 3 wins over top-10 teams in the Brian Kelly era.

Bama went 4-0 against top-10 teams just last season.

Ohio State had 3 wins over top-10 teams just since November 23, 2019.

Notre Dame is a good program, but they’re not a great program. If I had to rank the college football programs in terms of overall strength based on recent history, I think the best way to do it would be to split them into tiers.

Tier 1 is teams that can win a Natty every single year no matter how many players they lose to the NFL, and no matter how much coaching turnover they have. They don’t have to win the National Title every year, they just have to be good enough to win it every year. There’s only one team in this category, and I’ll let you take a wild guess who it is.

Tier 2 programs can win a National Championship, but not every year. In seasons where everything goes right for them, these schools move up to Tier-1, but they can’t maintain it every single year. The difference between a Tier 2 program and a Tier 3 program is that the floor is a lot higher for Tier 2 programs, meaning even in a “down year,” they’ll only lose 1-2 games tops, maybe 3 in the worst case scenario.

Tier 3 is the “wide range of possible outcomes” tier. It’s programs that still have winning the National Championship as their ceiling, the difference is that their floor is generally lower than Tier 2 schools. Tier 3 programs’ floor is like 4-5 losses if things really go bad for them (i.e. LSU last year), or if they don’t have the right coach, etc. But when they’re at their very best, Tier 3 programs can beat Tier 2 programs.

Tier 4 is where your ceiling is just shy of being able to win a National Championship. Your ceiling is conference Championship. For Notre Dame, who doesn’t have a conference, it’s making a playoff appearance and getting crushed by a Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3 team. I’m taking any Tier 4 program as a -3.5 favorite over any Tier 5 program at a neutral site.

Tier 5 programs can be Tier 4 programs for like a year at a time, but not every year. The difference is that Tier 5 programs just aren’t as consistently good as Tier 4 programs. Typically your Tier 5 program is going to lose 3-4 games a year on average, but sometimes they can put it all together and make a run at a conference Championship. But they can also lose 5-6 games and nobody will really bat an eye. It’s a matter of expectations, and that’s the real difference between Tier 4 and Tier 5: Tier 4 programs surprise us when they’re bad, Tier 5 programs surprise us when they’re good.

  • Tier 1: Bama
  • Tier 2: Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia
  • Tier 3: Oklahoma, LSU, Florida
  • Tier 4: Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, Iowa
  • Tier 5: Michigan, Michigan State, Auburn, USC, Texas

Now obviously there’s a lot of notable missing names here, like Cincinnati and Arkansas. But these teams haven’t been good for long enough for me to be able to put them into any tier. Arkansas just went through like a decade period where they were one of the worst teams in the SEC. That’s why they don’t belong in a tier. Arkansas posted back-to-back 2-10 seasons in 2018 and 2019. Now they’re #8 in the nation. There’s way too much variance to really put them in a tier.

I’m talking about the programs that are consistently good here. I’m talking about the programs that have been in the mix for the better part of the last decade.

Sometimes a school from outside the 5 tiers makes it into the top-10 of the AP Poll–I’m not saying they can’t. I’m just going by what I’ve seen from these programs over the past 10 years or so and what we can typically expect from them.

You have to be both good right now, and good over the past 10 years or so. That’s why Florida State isn’t in the tiers right now: because they’re terrible this year and they’ve been terrible for the past 4-5 years now. Normally they’d be in Tier 3. They used to be Tier 2 when they had Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston, now they’ve fallen off.

Clemson might be on the verge of dropping into Tier 3 if they continue losing games. It’s not easy to move up and down the tiers (which I just created 5 minutes ago), but if Clemson loses like 4-5 games this year they might.

I have Notre Dame as a Tier 4 team. They are in the same category as Oregon, Penn State, Texas A&M, Wisconsin and Iowa.

That means Notre Dame is in the 8-14 range in terms of best programs in the country. You may think that’s unfairly harsh to Notre Dame, but that’s not bad at all.

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