Notre Dame vs. Miami: A rivalry that could be great again, if the schedule allowed it

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was prompted to give a brief statement about Miami on the ACC teleconference on Wednesday. 

“Miami,” he said, “is really good. Was that brief?”

That’s just it heading into Saturday’s showdown between No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 7 Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. Miami is really good under second-year coach Mark Richt. Notre Dame is really good, too. The College Football Playoff implications make this a great matchup: a game that defines the next step in the playoff chase. 

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“I mean, it’s a really talented football team,” Kelly said. “Mark has done a great job of bringing the energy and enthusiasm back into Miami.”

Both coaches have brought the enthusiasm back to this matchup. It’s going to conjure memories, replays and emotions from the 1980s. Yet it’s going to be a reminder things will be never be the same with this rivalry that captivated college football with those chill-inducing showdowns that still reverberate today.

You can’t recreate what Notre Dame and Miami used to be. You just can’t. You can’t create something in the vicinity now because the schools won’t play again until 2024, because of the Irish’s five-game rotation with the ACC is set through 2037. 

“We’ve been challenged each and every week in the ACC, and each opponent has brought different challenges,” Kelly said. “But this one, I think, in terms of being as complete a football team, as we’ll play.” 

Too bad they don’t play more often. Could they alter the deal so the Irish are guaranteed the Coastal Division and/or Atlantic Division champions every season? What if the last College Football Playoff spot comes down to the ACC champion vs. Notre Dame? 

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If this game lives up to expectations, then it’s going to remind everybody of what we used to have — and what we can’t really have. We’re left with the nostalgia of that one-of-a-kind-flair ’80s flair that, it’s fair to say, might never occur again. For those who watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Catholics vs. Convicts,” there’s a one-liner from longtime Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard that captures this rivalry more than anything.

“I don’t know how I could’ve two things that were more disparate colliding,” he said. 

There are national rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan, in-state rivalries like Alabama-Auburn and cross-conference rivalries like Florida-Florida State, all with aspects that make them unique. Notre Dame-Miami borrowed something from all of those and spliced in an ’80s mix of establishment vs. counter-culture for a geographical, generational conflict that led to a once-in-a-lifetime, decade-long event.

It was the best. You can’t get the image of Notre Dame players clashing with Miami outside the tunnel before the game. You see the flurry of the games with national championship stakes. And remember, these were two independent programs that didn’t need a conference to get into a national championship game. One huge game spilled over into the next one from 1987-1990.

The emotions from those games are still visceral today. Who remembers a humid, rowdy Orange Bowl or a deafening Notre Dame Stadium in the middle of autumn?  You can still see the highlighter green and orange on that “Catholics vs. Convicts” shirt. It takes us back 30 years, and it’s great to feel that all over again. 

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Now, Miami and Notre Dame aren’t much different: Kelly and Richt don’t have the stark personality contrast Lou Holtz and Jimmy Johnson had. The Hurricanes have a fast defense feeding off a “turnover chain.” The Irish have an intimidating offensive line that has paved the way for Heisman Trophy candidate Josh Adams. Notre Dame is fifth in the FBS with 324.8 rushing yards per game.

“When you run the ball for over 300 some yards a game, you’re not Air Force, Army or Georgia Tech running triple-option football,” Richt said. “You’re doing something special.”

The winner here will have a legitimate to do something special, too. The College Football Playoff is the new prize, but that’s where Miami-Notre Dame will stop because of that locked-in schedule. That’s the disappointing part, a reminder of the conference carousel and the deals schools make to stay in the national spotlight. This is a case where the more things changed, the more Notre Dame and Miami are the same now. Perhaps it’s a concession in trying to catch the emotionless Alabama machine. 

We’re still going to enjoy the show. Notre Dame-Miami is big again, and that’s good enough for one spectacular night at Hard Rock Stadium. It won’t disappoint.

Kelly closed his brief statement with a succinct version of what everybody on both sides is feeling.

“Great challenge,” Kelly said. “Our guys are excited about the atmosphere, and looking forward to it.”

We just feel cheated we have to wait until 2024 to see it again.

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