Brian Kelly spent his final Zoom availability before the first (and only) conference championship game in Notre Dame football history arguing against another potential Irish first.
Kelly may have been bluffing when he said Notre Dame might not even play in the College Football Playoff if it has to go to a completely empty Rose Bowl, but it was only a bluff in that it should never have come to this and Kelly is frustrated with the ineptitude and ineffectiveness, as it seems all the coaches and players potentially involved are. They are not looking for tens of thousands of fans; they are looking for their families.
“I’m not sure we’ll play in the Playoffs if parents can’t be there, to be honest with you,” Kelly said Friday morning. “Why would we play if you can’t have the families at the game?”
That was in response to a question not even about the Rose Bowl, but about understanding why other teams are opting out of bowl games after this season. Kelly certainly does.
“My kids have been on campus here since June,” he said, echoing Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pointing out earlier in the week this has become a 20-some week season, rather than the usual 16. “They haven’t seen their families very much at all. They’ve had to fight through COVID, some of them had COVID. They can’t be around their families for Christmas. … And you’re going to tell me we’re going to have a Playoff and maybe one site can have families and the other can’t? Please.
“Somebody has got to wake up in that room and figure this out. We might as well just call this the professional league.”
On a weekend where No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) will be in the Playoff win or lose against No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1), just avoid a 56-0 blowout, the biggest question is not, will the Irish receive a conference championship trophy for the first and only time in program history? It is, where will Notre Dame go, to New Orleans, to Pasadena or to an unknown third location?
Anywhere, as long as it is not the Rose Bowl, in Kelly’s mind, and his players’, a sentiment heretofore unfathomable in college football.
“The players, they drive this,” Kelly said. “I don’t drive it. I’m echoing their concerns. I’m not the guy out there making this up, because it’s not about my family. It’s about their families, so I’m a voice for the team, and they’re concerned.”
In a year devoid of nuance, there are a few layers to unpack as this boulder slowly gains momentum rolling eastward down the San Gabriel Mountains. This is not the Rose Bowl’s fault, aside from being traditionally stubborn about its place in college football history — “We’re worshipping the ashes of tradition,” Kelly offered as his most evocative scathing. The Rose Bowl did not set the attendance parameters mandated by California throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
And it is hard to fault California, either. As of Thursday, southern California reportedly had zero percent open capacity in its intensive care units. Increasing any risk in that environment would be a foolish decision. For that matter, football games have a habit of sending individuals to intensive care units on a not infrequent basis.
None of this is news. We are more than nine months into a pandemic that has killed more than 310,000 people in the United States alone. Nearly 3,300 people died from coronavirus on Thursday. The severity of the situation is only underestimated by the short-sighted and self-absorbed.
Then again, the College Football Playoff committee has insisted on flying 13 mostly-elderly members across the country every week for the last month. That chase of airline and hotel rewards points qualifies as short-sighted and self-absorbed. Either that or the buffet in the conference room is catered by a chef with a dozen Michelin stars, at which point a conversation would need to be held about the concept of a buffet during a pandemic.
“Maybe they need to spend a little less time on who the top-four teams are and figure out how to get parents into these games,” Kelly said when asked if he felt the two ACC finalists were both top-four teams, not a question inherently tied to the Rose Bowl. “It is an absolute shame and a sham if parents can’t be watching their kids play.”
That is particularly true in a year where deciphering the top-four teams is not going to need much discussion come Sunday if three double-digit favorites prevail Saturday.
The committee is unlikely to have much to debate after a championship weekend with fewer and fewer games. It would serve well to spend that time seeking counsel from the committee’s management, a select membership that Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick is a part of.
If these parties continue to defer to the Rose Bowl’s status quo, it is not Kelly’s bluff they need to worry about. It is the game getting canceled by state or local decree on New Year’s Eve. Plenty of health authorities already wish that were the case across the country, including in North Carolina this weekend.
“Would I prefer that they not be held?” Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris rhetorically asked the Charlotte News & Observer this week, referring to the ACC championship and the bowl game that follows. “Yes, I would prefer not, because there are fans coming in from other parts of the country that are not part of our community. And I think right now is not the best time for that to happen.”
Fans at these bowl games are a difficult concept to fathom, but family members watching their sons instead of spending Christmas with them is a reasonable demand, at least, as long as these games are getting shoehorned in at all.
Announcing a Playoff field Sunday afternoon with any dependency on southern California would be a critical error by the College Football Playoff committee, a mistake begging for the Playoff to be scrapped along with 20 percent of the regular season’s attempts at competition.
As for Round II with the Tigers (4 ET; ABC), Kelly all-but-confirmed senior Josh Lugg will start at center instead of sophomore Zeke Correll, something sophomore running back Kyren Williams and senior right tackle Robert Hainsey slipped up and revealed earlier in the week. That decision sets up Notre Dame to once again have five multi-year starters along its line, though Lugg has been shuffled around a bit.
The Irish won the double-overtime thriller in November largely because of their dominance up front. Rekindling that in Charlotte will be vital.
“The trenches, we got our butts kicked in the first game,” Swinney said Monday. “It’s just that simple.”
What the committee is saying: “This unit was the gold standard of steady weekly improvement until injuries of their C and RG. Fundamentally sound unit with consistent sets and and fierce punches in pass protection. Footwork and combos in run game are what it should look like.” https://t.co/zL5uAoAPhP
— The Joe Moore Award (@JoeMooreAward) December 17, 2020
With a few extra weeks to establish a snapping rhythm with fifth-year quarterback Ian Book, Lugg’s greatest struggle against Syracuse may have been solved.
The other aspect of that 47-40 victory in November that could be trotted out again, although in a new manner, would be a change in offensive tendencies. First-year Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had run the ball on 60.8 percent of Notre Dame’s plays in the six games before facing Clemson. Against the Tigers, that dropped to 48.1 percent.
Shifting that focus affected Clemson’s defense, though Williams & Co. did still run for 208 yards and 5.2 yards per carry.
Rees is not about to shift back in a wild way, that card has been played, but one cannot help but wonder if junior Braden Lenzy finally has a completely healthy hamstring that can stretch the Tigers vertically.
If so, then perhaps Notre Dame will give the committee something to fret about besides location, location, location. Another Irish upset would not only seal a Notre Dame Playoff bid for the neurotic few still worried about that assurance, but it would also put the best program of the last five years teetering on the edge of the Playoff.
The Irish are chomping at the bit for that chance, just like they are to show off for their parents in the next round.
“If we could play Friday, yeah, the guys would want to play Friday,” Kelly said, revealing both Notre Dame and Clemson completed their weekly coronavirus tests without concern. “… We know Clemson, they know us. You got two really good football teams. There’s a lot of excitement. The guys are ready to play.”
They know where for now.
They are not happy with where next may be.