Sunday's college football: Faith in Kelly leads to playoffs for Notre Dame

Associated Press
Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish waves as he walks off the field Saturday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after defeating the USC Trojans.

Los Angeles — Two years ago, Notre Dame left the Memorial Coliseum with its program at a crossroads following a 4-8 season. Even though most thought coach Brian Kelly was on the hot seat, athletic director Jack Swarbrick had confidence that Kelly could turn things around.

Swarbrick’s confidence was rewarded on that same field Saturday. The third-ranked Fighting Irish wrapped up an unbeaten regular season with a 24-17 victory over USC and all but assured themselves a spot in the College Football Playoff.

“It’s that 24-month cycle. From everyone in that room saying we were going to get it fixed to it happening. It feels good,” Swarbrick said outside the locker room after the game.

It is the third time in program history Notre Dame has been 12-0, joining the 1988 national championship team and 2012 squad that made it to the Bowl Championship Series final before losing to Alabama.

While many were clamoring for Kelly’s ouster two years ago, Swarbrick said that midseason there wasn’t going to be a change. What both did do at the end of the season was examine everything about the program, from coaches to practice methods to nutrition.

Kelly hired new coordinators for offense, defense and special teams as well as a new strength coach. The result has been 22 victories in the past 25 games.

“We made changes, but we still had a core and a foundation,” Kelly said. “It still had to do with player development. We got our players to play at a higher level with better execution. Behind the scenes we did make some tweaks, but we won on the backs of players making plays.”

Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill said it was a special moment for upperclassmen who were able to turn things around after the disappointment of two years ago.

“I came to Notre Dame for the tradition of excellence, the tradition of football, and for a while there, we weren’t building that tradition,” Tranquill said. “We weren’t keeping that legacy going. We stared ourselves in the mirror two years ago and made a choice and said, ‘We’re going to decide where this ship goes.’ And I’m just so proud of all the guys in the locker room. It’s just a special moment, man.”

Notre Dame started last season 8-1 and was in the playoff conversation before dropping two of three. It went into the offseason with some momentum after a 21-17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl, which included quarterback Ian Book coming off the bench to rally the Fighting Irish.

Swarbrick said last season’s start as well as the Citrus Bowl win helped serve as the springboard to this year, which began with a victory over Michigan.

Coaching changes

Kliff Kingsbury has been fired at Texas Tech after the former record-setting Red Raiders quarterback had a losing overall record in his six seasons (35-40) as their head coach.

North Carolina fired coach Larry Fedora after seven seasons, including this year’s 2-9 mark. He is scheduled to receive a $12-million buyout.

Smith gets extension

Illinois extended the contract of coach Lovie Smith for two years through 2023 after the Illini finished his third season with four victories.

Athletic director Josh Whitman announced the deal Sunday.

USC coach stays

Clay Helton will remain Southern California’s head coach after the Trojans’ first losing season since 2000.

USC athletic director Lynn Swann made the announcement one day after the Trojans finished 5-7 with a loss to Notre Dame.