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Notre Dame Football Friday Fire: Just Win, Baby

In recruiting as on the field, there is only one cure-all

The decommitment of Keon Keeley, 5-star recruit and the top committed player in the 2023 class for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, hit like a ton of bricks earlier this week. It was a big blow to a class that, while still excellent even without Keeley, was looking to be on another level. While the Irish are not eliminated in Keeley’s re-opened commitment - or that of fellow five-star Samuel M’Pemba, who would certainly make up for his loss - recommitments are rare and it would take a game-changing event to make either one of these events happen. As it happens, I can think of one such event the Irish could deliver - it takes place on September 3 in Columbus, OH.

Marcus Freeman certainly needs no additional motivation in taking on his alma mater on his opening weekend, but add this to the list all the same: the best way to prevent decommits like this and lock down pledges from the top talent in the country now and in the future is to show on the field that regardless of opponent or venue, the best players in the country are better off standing on your sideline. If the Alabama Crimson Tide or Ohio State Buckeyes win Keeley’s recruitment, it won’t be because of NIL or academics or weather. It won’t be because of nebulous slimy recruiting practices with which Notre Dame would dare not dirty its hands. It will be be because they are proven winners and have convinced Keeley they can make him one too, in college and at the next level.

Notre Dame has done much in the past few years to prove that is at least a conceivable alternative to the incumbent recruiting juggernauts in this regard, and Freeman’s rapid improvement over his predecessor speaks to the power its pitch still has. But there is still a missing piece here, and Freeman has an opportunity to fill it in right away in his old home venue. Beating Ohio State in week one would make a statement to every recruit on Notre Dame’s radar: this Notre Dame is a new beast. It’s a program you go to because you want to win, and win at the highest level. The academics and alumni network aren’t the consolation prizes that make it worthwhile to consider over the proven winners; they’re the cherries on top that make it a no-brainer. There is only one way to make that pitch possible. In Al’s immortal words: Just Win, Baby.

The apparent paradox here has always been that we are always told we must recruit at a higher level in order to win these games. You have to recruit at an elite level to win against elite competition; you also have to win against elite competition to recruit at an elite level. Hate them though we might, the Clemson Tigers provide an instructive example on puncturing this logical circle: the winning came first for Dabo Swinney and co., with the recruiting classes that made up the 2016 championship team ranking between 16th and 9th nationally. While the Irish are, to Freeman’s credit, already aiming higher than that, moving all the way into the stratosphere may not happen without him shifting the narrative on the field.

Brian Kelly got Notre Dame to point of consistent excellence this far by ensuring they won the games they were supposed to win. With a couple notable exceptions, big-stage success still eluded the Irish. To take things to the next level, Marcus Freeman’s Irish will have to win a game they aren’t supposed to win, and stand out when the light shines brightest. Lucky for them - they get a shot in their first week.