Notre Dame can’t keep up with Alabama or college football’s 21st century elite, bombs out again

Exactly 27 years since they last won an elite bowl game, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish still rank as one of the elite programs in college football history — a credit to their 11 consensus national championships in the 20th century under five head coaches.

Yet they continue to show why they don’t even belong on the same field as the elite teams of the 21st century, most recently on Friday, when No. 1 Alabama demolished them, 31-14.

The latest mismatch came in the relocated Rose Bowl national semifinal in Arlington, Texas, where No. 4 Notre Dame (10-2) allowed Alabama (12-0) to score touchdowns on its first three possessions, including two touchdown catches for superstar receiver DeVonta Smith.

Notre Dame allowed 7.9 yards per play and watched Smith race around for touchdowns on three of his seven catches at AT&T Stadium, continuing a recent tradition for the tradition-rich Irish — petering out in the postseason against the nation’s best teams.

This is a program that has not won an elite bowl game since the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1994, when it beat Texas A&M, 24-21, in a battle of two top-10 teams.

The Irish are 0-8 since then in elite New Year’s Six bowl games — the Cotton, Rose, Fiesta, Peach, Orange and Sugar. All but one of those games were decided by fewer than 14 points — a 31-26 loss against Florida State in the Orange Bowl 25 years ago.

Just don’t get into this with Irish coach Brian Kelly. Afterward, he challenged the notion that his team wasn’t competitive in this game.

“I don’t really want to continue to go down this path,” he said when asked about the “next step” his program needs to take. “We’re going to keep getting here, OK? And we’re going to keep banging at it. You guys watched the game, didn’t you? They made plays on the perimeter. They made some dynamic plays. They have the college football player of the year (Smith), who made some dynamic plays. We battled. We were right there.”

His glass-half-full viewpoint contrasts with the fact that Alabama averaged 10 yards per play in the first half and was in firm control throughout, including a 28-7 lead entering the fourth quarter.

In the bigger picture, there are a couple of ways to look at this.

On the one hand, they were deemed good enough to be invited to these games. That’s no small accomplishment. In the past four seasons, their record is 43-8 under Kelly, their best coach since Lou Holtz, who won the last national title at Notre Dame in 1988.

On the other hand, their futility against modern-day elites starkly contrasts with the elite privileges they still receive at the upper echelons of power in college football. They arguably haven’t deserved them, including being given a College Football Playoff berth this season after being destroyed by No. 2 Clemson in their last game two weeks ago, 34-10.

Other examples include their special treatment from the playoff off the field, such as revenue distribution, all because of the elite program they once were, not the second-tier contestant they are now.

Holtz once gave this reason for Notre Dame’s exceptionalism:

“Those who know Notre Dame, no explanation’s necessary. Those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.”

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Notre Dame's Ian Book is sacked by Alabama's Byron Young during the second half of the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

By contrast, Kelly keeps getting questions about why the Irish aren’t living up to this exceptional standard. He didn’t like the questions from reporters about this topic Friday, saying “margin (of victory) is not the issue.” He cited a missed field goal and two missed red-zone chances in the fourth quarter.

“We’re going to keep getting back here, and I’m sorry if you don’t like it, or the national media doesn’t like it,” he said. “But we’re going to go back to work.”

Besides Friday’s result, the Irish also flopped in their other two biggest games of the 21st century — a 30-3 loss against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl national semifinal on Dec. 29, 2018, and a 42-14 defeat against Alabama in the Bowl Championship Series national title game in January 2013.

Their overall postseason record since their last elite bowl win is 6-14, including 3-11 in bowl games against teams from the best leagues in the football-crazy Midwest and South — the Southeastern, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences.

But such on-field results don’t really matter where it arguably matters most: their influence and their bank account. The brand of old Notre Dame still sells. Notre Dame also remains, in normal years, a special independent team that doesn’t belong to a conference.

And that’s why the Irish get a special seat in the boardroom of the College Football Playoff, a lucrative money machine that distributes revenue to all major college conferences and independent teams, regardless of whether they earned a playoff berth.

The playoff’s business affairs are governed by a board of managers that has 11 members: one executive to represent each of the 10 major college conferences, plus one executive to represent one school only — Notre Dame.

The Irish also get a special cut of the playoff when the wealth is shared each year.

For example, when Notre Dame lost to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl in 2018, it collected $11.2 million, according to NCAA documents. The Irish didn’t need to share any of that with a league office or other league members, unlike other big-time programs.

By comparison, the entire 14-member SEC got $83.6 million, which averages out to about $6 million per member, not including any share for the league office. That came from a year when the SEC had two teams in the national championship game: Alabama and Georgia. Notre Dame’s temporary conference this year, the ACC, got $71.5 million from that year, which is about $5 million per member, not including any share for the league office.

The playoff payouts level out more when the Irish don’t earn a playoff berth. In 2017, they didn’t make the playoff but got $2.8 million from it anyway, with no portion to share with a league office. As an independent, the Irish got nearly 10 times as much as other major college independents such as Army and BYU, which each got $310,000.

This was negotiated as part of the playoff contract.

“Notre Dame’s importance to the football world is significant,” playoff executive director Bill Hancock said Friday in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports. 

Hancock noted Notre Dame has had a “seat at the table” for the various elite postseason bowl arrangements of the past three decades, including the Bowl Championship Series. He also downplayed the notion of Notre Dame’s influence. 

“In the 16 seasons I have been with the BCS and CFP, I can’t recall us ever needing a vote on anything,” he said. “There has always been a consensus.”

This year, because of the pandemic, the Irish played as a member of the ACC, where they did manage to beat Clemson at home in double overtime in November when the Tigers didn’t have quarterback Trevor Lawrence, their best player.

What if the Irish were treated as a regular member of the ACC every year instead of a golden relic of yesteryear?

They’d get normal representation in postseason business affairs and normal revenue payouts as a member of a conference. They also might have to win the ACC championship to make it into the playoff next time, increasing the likelihood that they’d be good enough to finally compete with the elite teams of today.

It won’t happen any time soon, if ever, just because of the pull of their past. The playoff contract doesn’t expire until after January 2026, though it likely will be renegotiated about two years before that.

“Wake up the echoes” is how the Irish sing it in their fight song. But how long until those ancient echoes can’t get out of bed anymore?

Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Brent Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]

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