Maybe the best thing about college football is the weekly fluctuation in performance levels.
On any given Saturday — or Thursday or Friday, depending on the conference — these 18- to 22-year-olds can look like seasoned professionals or absolute beginners. That’s how stunning upsets happen nearly every single week.
Just not at Notre Dame. Not in a very long time.
Saturday’s workmanlike showing in a 34-6 win over Navy didn’t just bump the Fighting Irish to 8-1 on the season and 9-2 against the Midshipmen under coach Brian Kelly. It also marked Notre Dame’s FBS-leading 39th straight win over an unranked opponent.
Not since the misery of a 4-8 season in 2016 have the Fighting Irish tripped against a team unranked in the national polls. That last happened in a 34-31 home loss to Virginia Tech on Nov. 19, a setback that also marked the last time Notre Dame blew a fourth-quarter lead to lose at home.
That loss against the Hokies also was the last time Notre Dame fell when scoring 30 or more points. The Irish have won 40 straight under those conditions since that one.
Overall, since the start of 2017, Notre Dame has gone 51-9 with all nine losses coming against nationally ranked opponents.
Now, you can quibble with what Kelly’s teams have done when they’ve run up against foes such as Clemson or Alabama in the College Football Playoff — one-sided losses in two of the last three years — but there’s no denying his teams take care of business over and over and win the ones they’re supposed to.
“Well, I guess that’s pretty consistent,” Kelly said Saturday when asked about the 39-game streak. “Consistency in performance is important, right, in anything you do. What we’re doing, how we do it on a day-to-day basis, is for us about our process every single day and we stick with it. And it’s proven to be effective.”
There is a constant temptation, in sports or business or beyond, to grow a bit bored with success and then try to reinvent the wheel. Tweak a few things here or there, and maybe the highs will be even higher.
But what if they’re not? What if that merely pulls out the trap door and sends your program spiraling toward the abyss?
Once he reevaluated everything about his program after 2016 and recalibrated many (if not most) areas of it, Kelly has stuck to his plan, his messaging and his beloved process. He’ll do so again this week as first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman must spin on a dime and go from preparing for the Navy triple-option to the wide-open Virginia offense Notre Dame will face next week on the road.
The Cavaliers, by the way, are another unranked foe. Same as Georgia Tech and Stanford, the other remaining teams on Notre Dame’s ho-hum, 2021 regular-season schedule. The lone loss was against a Cincinnati team ranked second in the country by the Associated Press.
“Sometimes I get up here and it sounds like the same-old, same-old, but it’s proven to be pretty effective,” Kelly said. “And our guys probably feel the same way too. They do it every day. They believe in it. They’re 100 percent bought-in on how we do things on a day-to-day basis. And our standards have shown that it’s been really effective.”
Kelly paused and smiled before adding the kicker.
“So we won’t be changing anything anytime soon.”