Rakes Report #163: Because it isn't as though we get what we want, no matter how hard or long we have fought (The Alabama Review)

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~optional musical accompaniment~

1) Notre Dame lost to the Crimson Tide in the Rose Bowl for a number of reasons but three factors stand out:

a) The Irish did not recruit defensive back or wide receiver well enough a few years ago and that came back to cost them in a major way against a team with perhaps the best outside talent in the sport. Kyle Hamilton is a check-plus, but next to him was a grad transfer, a true freshman and a sixth-year corner-to-safety conversion. The starting wide receivers were a grad student, a converted quarterback and a Northwestern transfer. There were injuries and transfers out, sure, and these players should be praised for the work they put in and staff lauded for getting to 10-0 but when you see the perfection of DeVonta Smith or the suffocating ability of Patrick Surtain the gap feels extra wide.

On the Cover 3 podcast*, 247 recruiting director Barton Simmons** has been professing the belief for months that wide receiver is the new defensive line in terms of the position group you must be elite at in order to win at the highest levels. After watching both semifinals, that’s a pretty compelling theory. Thankfully, Notre Dame has accrued some good receiver talent in the last couple classes. Unfortunately, it pales in comparison to what Alabama and Ohio State are adding to their treasure trove, which is just another example of the current situation for the elite of the elites and everyone else. (I will note the Irish were not blown to pieces in the trenches, which was nice.)

* Speaking of, I thought their discussion of the Irish loss — available here beginning at the 25-minute mark — was fair and more clear-eyed than what you’ll see among some closer to the program. They also don’t spend a lot of time on the post-game press conference.

** Late Sunday, it was reported that Clark Lea was hiring Simmons (a Nashville native and high school teammate of Lea’s) for an operations role at Vanderbilt.

b) Notre Dame was in an unenviable offensive position on Friday as they needed to try to score enough points to beat a team that was on a two-year streak of putting up 35+ but also run enough clock that they didn’t leave their defense exposed to three top-five Heisman finishers all afternoon. It’s possible no game plan exists that would allow this Notre Dame roster to beat this Alabama roster yet I am going to nitpick anyway. Tommy Rees did a really good job all season with the players available but one unseemly trend was an overreliance on second and long runs, generally considered the worst play in football. In a game where the Irish were 20-point dogs and had to take some chances, they were far too conservative, and seemed to come out tight, which I do not understand in a game no one thought you were going to win.

Down 7-0 near midfield, the Irish went Kyren Williams run, Kyren Williams run, Ian Book designed QB run on 3rd and 7 then punt. Very bad! You are a giant underdog, and Alabama went 97 yards in five plays so your punt achieved nothing. (Nice day by Jay Bramblett, though, against the hometown squad.) At 21-7 near midfield, they completed a one-yard pass to Williams, then had him run on second and nine before a third and nine incompletion. I would have preferred to give Book a few more chances to cook early – some bootlegs, some play-action, some more back-shoulder throws, more plays like the screen to Chris Tyree — but I understand Alabama has a pair of nasty corners and blue chippers all over the place and eating clock had to be a priority.  I just would have preferred a few more chances, but it also should be noted Tommy Tremble was a key part of the Notre Dame offense all year and to lose him early was real bad.

c) Nick Saban has a case as the best coach in the history of the sport and deserves a ton of credit for what he has built. After being tripped up by the spread a few times and complaining about how up-tempo offenses were dangerous he switched it up, said, “Well, if these teams can score so many points with mortal talent, what would it look like with my roster” and then brought in Lane and Sark to modernize his offense. Now they recruit receivers at a silly rate and are set to continue their dominance.

Brian Kelly isn’t as good as Saban, but that would be the case with basically any coach the Irish could hire short of Bill Belichick, and even then I’m wondering how he would handle recruiting trips. The Irish are the fifth different program to lose to Alabama by double digits in the semifinals – this is just sort of what happens. As we mourn our fate, it’s fun to remember that the only reason Saban landed in Tuscaloosa is because Rich Rodriguez got cold feet and the Dolphins chose Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees. History bends at odd junctures.

2) I am not really sure how to evaluate the defense, at least without seeing what Alabama does in a week. They gave up touchdown drives on the first three possessions and made it look pretty easy for Mac Jones and company but they also buckled down at the end of the first half and beginning of the second to keep it a little bit interesting. We’re in a position where Najee Harris jumped over another human being without breaking stride and he is the third best offensive player on the Tide, per Heisman voters. Like, DeVonta Smith levitated at one point? And his last touchdown catch was technical perfection. These guys have been crushing everyone all season, including really talented Georgia and A&M defenses, and if they do it again against the Buckeyes you just tip your hat as you had to with last year’s LSU team.

3) If you would have offered me before the game the option that Notre Dame would have been down 14 in the third quarter but putting on a solid drive I would have almost certainly taken that deal, but unfortunately Book made a very poor decision on a 2nd and seven with room in front of him. If the Irish go down and score there, Alabama probably just busts out some disgusting double move to Smith out of the slot to immediately restore order but it would have been nice to make them sweat just a little bit. That game was never in doubt but for a second I thought there might have been a hint of second-half drama. Alas.

4) Notre Dame’s offensive strengths are always going to be at line and tight end so it doesn’t make sense for the Irish to swerve too far away from that, but Rees must spend this offseason finding ways to increase the creativity and dynamism on the outside so the Irish can crank up the vertical passing threat in these big games. I cannot state this any more clearly: As college football is currently played, you cannot win a playoff game, let alone two, without being able to throw the deep ball. Running the ball is helpful and good defenses are nice but if Notre Dame wants to reach the peak they must must must expand that part of the scheme. Big winter, spring and summer for Rees, who will have no shortage of toys to play with in the fall but he’s going to have to find a quarterback (or quarterbacks) and replace some stalwarts on the line.

5) Just wanted to shout out some guys. Book got absolutely wrecked on a sack and considering the score could have easily just called it a day, but came back in and put on a few more drives. He falls to 30-5 as a starter, the losses coming in two playoff games, an ACC Championship and on the road in Ann Arbor in Athens – you want to win some games, he’s a very good choice. Kyren Williams and Michael Mayer were beasts, again, George Takacs played well in relief of Tremble and Ben Skowronek made some plays. Kyle Hamilton flashed as he is wont to do while Jayson Ademilola was a real force in the middle.

(I can’t remember if I wrote about this after bowl season last year but I remember thinking “It really sucks to lose your championship game then your bowl” because there were a lot of examples of fun seasons ending in downers last year and hey look at us now. Utah went from 11-1 and on the verge of the playoff to 11-3 after losses to Oregon and Texas. Baylor, same deal, after losing to Oklahoma and Georgia. Wisconsin had a big win over Minnesota to get to 10-2 but finished 10-4 after Ohio State and Oregon, while Virginia’s feel-good 9-3 turned into 9-5 after Clemson and Florida. Under Kelly, Notre has split the West Coast finale/bowl game nearly every year, with only 2010 and 2019 providing consecutive wins and only 2011 and 2015 closing with consecutive losses. I don’t have a broader point here and should have provided a disclaimer at the start of this nonsensical parenthetical but here we are.)

6) There are a few ways the immediate future of Fighting Irish football can go, including but not limited to these following options:

More of the same, with upside: Notre Dame continues on the same track, recruiting at a top ten-ish level, winning ten-ish games a season, sending guys to the NFL at a steady clip and generally acquitting themselves well but failing to crack the final level of the sport. Where does the upside come from? The coaching staff can take another step forward and you could also maybe see star-level QB play along with an experienced roster upcycling at the same time (think 2019 LSU, but like, 80 percent of that) combined with one of the powers dealing with injuries or bad breaks and steal one. The frustrating thing about being this close is that you keep losing when you’re this close but the nice thing is you’re consistently this close and that means fortune has more opportunities in which to smile upon you.

Cranking up recruiting, closing gap further: This doesn’t seem like a strong likelihood under this staff but it could happen, I guess? We kind of know what we’re getting with Kelly recruiting after a decade at this so I’ll just assume that continues until it changes. Do you know how cool it was to add Kyle Hamilton to the roster last year and Michael Mayer this year? Imagine adding four or five of them every year. Seems fun, I would like to try it, but I also understand why many top prospects have no interest in playing school and Indiana winters.

A backslide: Unfortunately, this one does seem plausible. Next season the Irish will be replacing Book, Lea and a number of senior linemen, meaning that it could be a rebuilding-ish season depending on how some of the teams of the schedule swing. In 2022 and 2023, absolutely stacked Ohio State and Clemson are both on the slate, two rather large boulders to move. Kelly has a good thing going and it’s possible everything continues to click at the same double-digit-win-season rate, but it’s also possible we’re averaging three-plus losses a year for a while.

A coaching change: I don’t know how likely this is, but it’s possible, if Kelly gets a godfather offer from elsewhere, decides he wants to retire or one of the beat writer reply guys on Twitter gets their hands on the wishing stone from the new Wonder Woman. We won’t be able to fully evaluate Kelly’s tenure until he’s gone, as we know he’s better than the trio of predecessors but the question is whether this is as good as it gets for Notre Dame football in the 21st century or if this is just as good as it gets for Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly. Hiring head coaches is an absolute crapshoot with limited Urban Meyer exceptions and anyone who tells you otherwise after Jim Harbaugh and Tom Herman and Scott Frost and Justin Fuente and Mike MacIntyre and Kevin Sumlin and Randy Edsall and all the way down the line is not paying attention. Maybe Matt Campbell or P.J. Fleck or Exciting Candidate X will be better or maybe they won’t. At some point in the coming years we’ll find out, for better or worse.

7) I feel like this is basically the third time we’ve wrapped up the season, but just want to reiterate any time you make the playoff that’s a successful campaign considering all of four teams do that. If you beat the No. 1 team in the country along the way and do so during a pandemic with virus protocols and after an offseason of social justice protests in which player after player stepped up in impressive fashion, well, that only makes it more successful. This is an extraordinary group of individuals and it was a real pleasure to watch them compete for a dozen games.

8) To close: It would be one thing if Notre Dame wasn’t earning their way into these big games, but they absolutely are on account of they’re better than a vast majority of programs who don’t beat them, thus allowing them to advance to these situations. The bigger problem is when they get to these games they are almost immediately thrown into a pit of chainsaws, which is not ideal. But what is the alternative to simply continuing to work your way into these positions, tweaking the system and trying to upgrade recruiting? I know sometimes we have the discussion of “Lose in the playoff or win a New Year’s Six game” but if that happens you just lost a regular season game or two you wouldn’t have normally. Would you have preferred the Irish lose to Oklahoma or Pitt in 2012, or Michigan or Pitt in 2018, or Louisville or Clemson this year rather than meet their grisly fates? Maybe that would have been better, but it would have felt miserable at the time and we always would have questioned whether that was a team that could have pulled it off if it didn’t get tripped up (think 2015). Plus, you can’t guarantee a New Year’s Six win (unless you can, at which point hit me up and let’s talk).

There’s nothing that says the result will change the next time the Irish make it back to this stage or the time after that or the time after that — if they even make it back! We’ve been rather spoiled of late — but I have developed a fondness for the cocktail of grease and blood that’s pooled at the bottom because of what it represents. It’s important to keep making these games for two key reasons: You can’t win a title if you don’t play on this stage and by virtue of making these games it means you put together a great three months of football, and there’s so much value and joy in that.

I hate to have to tap the Al Swearengen sign again but I’m going to do it:

So including last night, that’s three fucking damage incidents that didn’t kill you. Pain or damage don’t end the world, or despair, or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man — and give some back.

Maybe it never happens with Kelly, but the next guy is a recruiting ace who puts Notre Dame over the top. Or maybe it happens with Kelly and this whole journey is part of a glorious story. Or maybe the next guy is worse, and the next-next guy is worse than him and it never happens at all. I can’t make you any promises other than that I share in all your frustrations, but I’m going to keep watching just in case. These last four years — double-digit victories each fall, two playoff berths, two bowl wins, a lone home loss — have been a great deal of fun and it would have been a real shame to miss out on them.

Our current position comes back to the tricky matter of attempting to balance complacency and contentment. Giving up on the strive to the very top would be disappointing, potentially denying us a chance to some day celebrate the ultimate prize, but to ignore all that we have to instead focus on all that we lack is also a problem. Figuring out the correct mix of the two is an ever-evolving project, but I think we’re doing our best.

Let’s wrap this up: Happy New Year. Please stay safe. And Go Irish, Beat Seminoles, and may we all be able to tailgate together this fall.

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