Can Brian Kelly reverse Notre Dame’s awful record against top-ranked teams?

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked the big-game question again during his media availability ahead of Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 1 Alabama.  

“I mean, we’re knocking on the door every year playing really good teams and great opponents,” Kelly responded. “There’s elite football teams. I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the games.”  

Kelly then answered the question about that narrative himself.  

“We haven’t won a national championship, that’s correct. I’m not changing the record,” he said. “But we are there every single year and we’re grinding it out just like everybody else. And only one team gets to celebrate at the end of the year.”  

Notre Dame won its last national championship in 1988, and the narrative exists because of the missed big-game opportunities ever since. Sporting News looks closer at those missed opportunities against top-five teams ahead of the next opportunity against the Crimson Tide.  

Pre-BCS reputation (1989-1997)  

The Irish won their last national championship in 1988 under Lou Holtz, and they maintained a reputable big-game reputation through his final season in 1996.  

From 1989-96, Notre Dame compiled a 7-5 record against top-five teams, including a 4-3 record in regular season top-five showdowns and a 2-3 record in bowl games. The high point was the victory against Florida State in the Game of the Century in 1993.  

A look at those matchups (*denotes bowl game)  

That is a steady track record of success against top-five competition. The loss to Ohio State in 1996, however, foreshadowed the slide that would come in the BCS era. 

BCS before Brian Kelly  (1998-2009) 

The Irish sifted through three coaches in the BCS era in Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, and this is where the big-game hits showed up.  

From 1997-2009, Notre Dame went 2-14 against top-five teams. Both victories were against top-five Michigan teams in the regular season. Five of those losses were to USC, and that included the “Bush Push” game in 2005. 

A look at those matchups (*denotes bowl game) 

The lone top-five showdown in that stretch was the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 2, 2006. The Irish also had blowout BCS bowl losses to Oregon State and LSU in that stretch.  

Brian Kelly’s record against top-five teams

The Irish beat No. 1 Clemson 47-40 on Nov. 7 this season, but that marked the first win against a top-five team under Kelly, who took over in 2010.  

Kelly is right about the opponents. Notre Dame has played seven top-five opponents since Kelly took over, and the Irish were ranked in the top five in five of those games.

The results, however, have followed a similar pattern (*denotes BCS championship, **denotes CFP semifinal, ***denotes ACC championship).  

Expanding it further, Kelly is 3-8 against opponents ranked in the top 10 at Notre Dame. Five of the eight losses were by 14 points or more, including that 28-point loss to Alabama in 2012 — the last time Notre Dame played for a national championship.

What’s next?  

Add those numbers up since the BCS era, and it’s easy to see why the Notre Dame big-game narrative exists.  

Notre Dame is 3-20 against top-five teams, including a 0-5 record against those teams in bowl matchups. Alabama’s blowout victory in the 2013 BCS championship game hasn’t been forgotten, and that was the game reference that prompted Kelly’s reaction in the first place.  

“We’re going to keep getting back here, and that’s our job,” he said. “That’s our challenge each and every year is to compete for a national championship, and we’ll continue to do that.”  

A win against Alabama would be a good start. 

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