Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly is well aware of the portrayal of his No. 4 Fighting Irish as they prepare to clash with No. 1 Alabama on Friday afternoon in the Rose Bowl national semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The conversation has been consistent since the 34-10 loss to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Dec. 19, which was followed a day later by the Rose Bowl pairing and the Crimson Tide immediately being installed as 20-point favorites. It has been the largest line since the implementation of the College Football Playoff in 2014, and it has continued the image of Notre Dame having a steel ceiling when it comes to facing the national elite.
Kelly's Irish did topple Clemson 47-40 in double overtime during the regular season, when the Tigers were without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence due to a positive COVID-19 test, but the ACC title result was too reminiscent for many of the 30-3 drubbing that Dabo Swinney's Tigers applied in the Cotton Bowl semifinal of the 2018 season.
"That's why we go to work each and every day — to put ourselves in this position, and we're going to keep knocking at the door," Kelly said Thursday. "We don't listen to the narratives of what Notre Dame can and can't do. We're just excited that we're going to keep banging at this door, and we're going to get through.
"We're going to keep putting ourselves in this position, and we're excited about this opportunity that we've got."
This is Kelly's second crack at Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, with the first encounter having produced Alabama's 42-14 win in the BCS title game of the 2012 season. The Tide led that game 35-0 midway through the third quarter.
That outcome served as the launching point of the narrative Kelly is having to combat, and his 43-7 record since the 4-8 debacle season of 2016 has been accompanied by one blowout loss a year. It was Miami that applied a 41-8 battering that somewhat soured a 10-3 rebound season in 2017, and Clemson's Cotton Bowl cruising two years ago resulted in a 12-0 Notre Dame looking completely outmatched.
Notre Dame dropped a second close call to Georgia in three years early last season but abruptly fell from the national picture with a 45-14 loss to Michigan.
"To be able to be in the playoffs twice in my career is unbelievable," fifth-year senior quarterback Ian Book said. "We've got a great program here at Notre Dame that gets it done, but we've got to go finish it. We were able to get there in 2018, but we didn't finish the deal.
"We've got another opportunity now with a lot of guys who played in that game and are now more mature and better football players, and we've had a bad taste in our mouths since that game."
Alabama has won six national championships since Notre Dame's most recent title in 1988, with five of those crowns occurring under Saban. This Tide team became the first in Southeastern Conference history to win 10 regular-season contests against league foes, and they won each of those games by at least 15 points.
A 52-46 outlasting of Florida in the SEC title game provided a tougher test for Alabama, and Saban hasn't been dwelling this week on the 2012 national title matchup with Notre Dame or the 20-point spread for the Rose Bowl.
"I always tell our players that we really shouldn't listen to what people say externally and to stay focused on what you have to do internally to be able to play your best football," Saban said. "This program is built on players being accountable to do their jobs at a high level and to be accountable to each other.
"Really, what other people think and say doesn't have anything to do with the outcome of the game, so we want to stay focused on the things that we have to do to get the proper outcome for our team with great respect for the team we have to play."
Alabama and Notre Dame have revealed good news this week in the battle against the coronavirus, with Saban on Thursday saying: "We haven't had any problems to this point, and I always knock on wood when I say that. Everybody who we expected to be on the trip will be on the trip."
So now it's up to the players to determine whether Alabama can take another step to another title or whether Notre Dame can shatter its perceived ceiling.
"It starts with believing," Book said. "We believe we can win the national championship this year, and that's where it matters and that's where it starts. It's just an unbelievable opportunity for this team."
Vols sign Brooks
Tennessee on Thursday announced the signing of outside linebacker Dylan Brooks of Roanoke, Alabama.
Brooks committed to the Volunteers in late April and quietly signed during December's early period. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder from Handley High School is the nation's No. 3 weakside defensive end and No. 51 prospect overall in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, making him the Vols' highest-rated signee for the 2021 cycle.