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Notre Dame has a problem that a win won’t hide, and firing Brian Kelly won’t fix

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) throws during the first half against Virginia Tech on Saturday.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book throws during the first half against Virginia Tech on Saturday.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

Ian Book’s teammates vaulted him into the air against the brick wall that envelopes the field at Notre Dame Stadium, giving the junior quarterback the props he deserved after capping an 18-play, 87-yard drive with a nifty touchdown run to secure a win over Virginia Tech that should have been in hand long before the final minute.

As special as that moment was for Book and the Fighting Irish, it probably should have been Brian Kelly who was doing the lifting. Given the pressure that had been building since a Notre Dame fumble at the goal line was returned for a touchdown by the Hokies in the second quarter, the emotional release from Kelly could have sent the quarterback soaring out of the stadium all the way to Touchdown Jesus.

Look, this is not a “Brian Kelly should be fired” column. This is not even a Kelly hot (seat) take. Kelly should not be fired, and the coach’s rump is always slow-cooking in South Bend if he hasn’t won a national championship.

This is an explanation of why Notre Dame — a year removed from an unbeaten regular season and a forgettable appearance in the College Football Playoff — feels suddenly immobile.

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The Fighting Irish can’t fire Kelly, one of three sitting coaches along with Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney to coach in a national championship game and a CFP semifinal. A home loss to one of the worst Virginia Tech teams of the modern era, a week after a 45-14 loss at Michigan in prime time when the Irish were ranked No. 8, would have turned up the heat. But Book’s clutch drive and game-winning gallop kept the Irish moving toward a 10-2 finish and New Year’s Six bowl invite.

Ian Book ran seven yards for a touchdown with 29 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and No. 16 Notre Dame escaped with a 21-20 win over Virginia Tech.

By holding out on joining a conference, Notre Dame has put itself in a position where national standing is all that matters. Its fans are left in early November with a No. 16 ranking and remaining games against Duke, Navy, Boston College and Stanford. For the Irish, there is nothing to gain, only plenty to lose, and that’s how they played Saturday.

How much more exciting would it be for their players, even after two tough road losses to talented teams like Georgia and Michigan, if Notre Dame were still at least chasing a championship within a league like most two-loss teams in the country? Once the Irish have lost twice, Kelly no longer can say “all of our goals are in front of us” like every other coach, because there’s only one goal at Notre Dame, and it’s becoming clear that the goal of winning the big prize is no longer a realistic one.

Kelly has proven that he won’t get the Irish to the promised land. He also has proven he won’t let the program fall into disrepair. He’s a dependable steward, the first the program has had since Lou Holtz.

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Yet, how could Notre Dame be excited for the future?

Notre Dame lives in dread of what making the wrong hire could do to the firm foundation Kelly has built. It can look at Florida State, Miami, Tennessee and Nebraska and cringe.

Then again, it also could look at Georgia, which fired uber-consistent Mark Richt in favor of Kirby Smart, and Louisiana State, which fired a national championship coach in Les Miles in favor of Ed Orgeron, and see a tantalizing vision for what taking a big risk can do.

But, as Notre Dame would be the first to tell you, it doesn’t compare itself to anyone. Today, that means something different. The Fighting Irish are incomparably stuck.

Georgia can earn it

Of the projected playoff favorites to begin the season, No. 8 Georgia has been the most underwhelming. The Bulldogs have been trying for weeks to recover from a jarring overtime loss at home to 4-5 South Carolina, and got the job done Saturday with a 24-17 win over No. 6 Florida.

The Bulldogs still have to play at No. 11 Auburn before meeting next week’s Alabama-LSU winner in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Even with so many questions still to be answered about Georgia, it controls its destiny in the CFP, and Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator, has proven to be a worthy adversary of Saban now that he’s at Georgia.

Jake Fromm picked apart Florida’s defense for the second straight year and No. 8 Georgia beat the sixth-ranked Gators 24-17 in the ‘World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.’

The Bulldogs also are involved in a scenario that could help one-loss teams like Oregon, Oklahoma and Utah work their way into the playoff:

If Georgia loses to Auburn (which certainly could happen) but beats the West division champion in Atlanta, the odds of two SEC teams getting into the playoff go way down.

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For the Ducks, Sooners and Utes, the Bulldogs are a team to watch down the stretch.

Huntley’s a winner

Utah senior quarterback Tyler Huntley doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves.

He’s among the most improved players in the country and he’s the reason Utah notched an impressive 33-28 win at Washington to keep its Pac-12 title and playoff hopes alive.

Playing in a tough environment in Seattle, Huntley completed 19 of 24 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown. He added a touchdown run in the fourth quarter that put the Utes up for good.

When Huntley came to Utah, he was considered more of a runner. What a difference four years makes. This season he’s completing 73% of his passes and has thrown just one interception.

Huntley and fellow senior quarterback Justin Herbert of Oregon should have quite a duel in Santa Clara in the Pac-12 championship game with possibly a playoff berth on the line.

No. 9 Utah recovered from an 11-point first-half deficit to defeat Washington 33-28 in Seattle and keep alive its College Football Playoff hopes.

Newman shines in return

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson did not announce Jamie Newman’s status all week as the quarterback recovered from a shoulder injury sustained in a 62-59 loss to Louisville on Oct. 12.

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Newman’s backup, Sam Hartman, started in a 22-20 win over Florida State on Oct. 19, and the Demon Deacons had a bye last week.

It was Newman who got the start Saturday against N.C. State, and the junior reminded everyone he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 30 yards and two scores in a 44-10 win.

Wake Forest has the best chance to knock off Clemson in ACC play on Nov. 16, and the Demon Deacons certainly would need Newman to pull it off.


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