2018 Cotton Bowl: It's time for Brian Kelly to cash in Notre Dame's slow and steady upswing

DALLAS -- Brian Kelly played backup Friday morning.

Both Cotton Bowl semifinal coaches attended the perfunctory day-before press conference that usually reveals little. This time, Clemson's Dabo Swinney -- being Dabo Swinney -- dominated the 30-minute session with his laidback wit and wisdom. Meanwhile, Kelly -- football coach at the world's largest Catholic flagship university -- was reduced to role of straight man.

"I don't know if you've seen his golf swing," Dabo chided Kelly. "Crap."

Great. Golf jokes before one of the biggest games of their lives.  

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Cotton Bowl

For Swinney, he can afford to crack wise. This game figures to be a continuation of excellence. Swinney famously said in 2010 that Clemson was about to embark on the best decade in its history. So far, he has delivered spectacularly.

For Kelly, it's been a bit more complicated. During his nine years at Notre Dame, he has taken the program to the mountaintop (2012 BCS Championship Game) and had to look over his shoulder regarding job security (4-8 in 2016). A coach who is known as somewhat of a quarterback whisperer recently has had his issues correctly identifying his starters.

Much has been made of Kelly's introspection after the 2016 downturn. NBC (and other networks) seemed to have a Kelly Cam dedicated to his latest sideline explosion. Those outbursts are mostly gone. He has taken a more cerebral approach, become more relatable. The Irish subsequently have won 22 of their last 25 games.

"Guys couldn't identify with him because he was this guy that they just couldn't live up to," captain and de facto team spokesman Drue Tranquill said. "But this year, he just became so much more of a mentor to our other players."

Kelly is a better coach and man because of it.

"I don't know if I changed as a man," Kelly countered. "You'd have to ask my wife that. That's a little personal."

When asked to dig down on that assertion, the Irish's coach tends to summarize his change into a series of bullet points.

"Mental preparation, physical preparation, technically, tactically," Kelly said. "Maybe in '16 we weren't developing them in all those areas."

This playoff for Notre Dame is about more than Kelly's rep. It is another attempt to reestablish the program.

In this Cotton Bowl, No. 2 Clemson is the glamour team, and Swinney is the superstar coach going into this game. Kelly and No. 3 Notre Dame are the ones trying to catch up. The Tigers are in their fourth straight CFP. The Irish haven't won a major bowl (current New Year's Six) since 1994, going 0-6 in their opportunities. The Irish haven't been underdogs this big in the postseason (12 ½ points) in at least 41 years.

"We've been away far too long," Notre Dame receiver Miles Boykin told reporters this week. "It's unacceptable to be at a place like Notre Dame and have the history that we have and not be at a place like this. Everything that we talked about was we've got to put Notre Dame back on the map and change the narrative about us recently."

Kelly is getting there, if somewhat steadily. He is the latest to inherit a streak that has reached 30 years without a national championship.

However, the last Irish coach to produce two undefeated regular seasons was Ara Parseghian. There should be nothing more than an asterisk attached to Kelly's first undefeated regular season in 2012.

It was vacated by the NCAA because of academic fraud violations. Notre Dame remains furious at the NCAA because of that decision. He is one of only five active coaches to have at least two BSC championship/CFP appearances on his resume.  He is the only CFP coach in this season's bracket not on that list.

The honors just keep on coming. Earlier this month, Kelly was named Home Depot National Coach of the Year for the third time, remaining the only coach to get it more than once in the award's 25-year history. On Friday, he was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year.

If Kelly stays through the length of his current contract, which ends after the 2021 season, he at 12 seasons will be the second-longest tenured Notre Dame coach next to Knute Rockne (13).

But you won't hear anyone comparing him to Rockne just yet. That's cool. Kelly is at a point in his career where his next move and only move could be to the NFL.

"It's really about, I think each year [getting] to a standard that Notre Dame has," Kelly said. "You know about Knute Rockne's standard. You know about, certainly, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz. You try to live [up] to that standard each and every year."

The question no one -- perhaps not even Kelly -- can answer is regarding the quarterback juggling. Last season, he switched quarterbacks early on from Malik Zaire to DeShone Kizer. Tranquill told CBS Sports that decision "split" the team.

Kizer, eventually, turned out to be the better choice, much like Ian Book this season. But how did Zaire and (this year) Brandon Wimbush get to the point of being groomed over an entire offseason to start when their backups proved to be more effective? Kelly has had seven starting quarterbacks in nine seasons. Dayne Crist and Wimbush are the only two quarterbacks to start consecutive season openers.

Of the five quarterbacks no longer around, the only one not to transfer or leave early was current quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees. Only twice in those nine seasons has one quarterback started the entire season -- Rees in 2013 and Kizer in 2016.

These are mysteries that fit in the category of a Notre Dame coach being upstaged at a playoff press conference.

Maybe the best indicator of Kelly in 2018 is the Pittsburgh game. Notre Dame's effort back on Oct. 13 threatened to ruin an undefeated season. The Irish, though, survived 19-14 against the mediocre Panthers.

"I think other teams that I would have been on would have lost that game," Tranquill said. "This team never gave up."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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