After a 38-0 victory over visiting Wake Forest, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly fired up the projection screen in his theater room Saturday night while a group of friends and family shared a meal, and a few hours later, the sweetness that comes with the No. 1 ranking in all the land.
Notre Dame claimed the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press and USA Today polls Sunday after a wild Saturday of college football that saw the Irish throttle Wake Forest and No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon both lose
“We probably had about 12-15 people cheering quite loudly,” Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference.
And the third-year coach of the Fighting Irish was among the most vocal after No. 1 Kansas State and No. 2 Oregon both fell.
“Heck yeah,” he said.
Notre Dame (11-0) no longer has to talk about style points or the politics associated with the BCS, it simply has to beat longtime rival Southern California six days from now in Los Angeles to earn a ticket to Miami.
“We get a chance to play for the national championship provided we win this week,” Kelly said. “Oh absolutely [it was frustrating having to answer questions about where Notre Dame should be ranked]. Yeah, but I understand it too. It comes with the territory; you’re going to have those questions posed to you. The best thing that I can do is try to keep our football team focused on the next game, and that’s what we tried to do.”
As players filtered through the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Monday morning, Kelly realized quickly he and his staff have been successful on that front.
“You know what? They didn’t even talk about it,” he said. “A couple of the guys were congratulated by a couple of the trainers, and their first response was, ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t beat USC.’ That’s all I really needed to hear.”
Having voted the Irish No. 1 the last couple weeks, Kelly explained that he doesn’t necessarily feel vindicated after critics questioned the validity of the Irish actually being the best team in the country.
“I just felt like, as it relates to our football team, I was just being consistent with my rankings,” he said. “I told our team that I felt like they were the best team in the country because I knew [them] most. I knew more about our team than the other team. Now we’ve been given this opportunity; we’ve got to make the best of it by beating USC.”
Bathed in Gatorade after throttling the Demon Deacons to finish undefeated at home for the first time since 1998, Kelly, after the top two programs tripped up, took a brief moment to enjoy the reality of a consensus No. 1 ranking.
“There’s clearly a sense of pride and accomplishment,” he said. Our football team is winning games. We’re more focused not on the No. 1, but the consistency of our program is really what I think there’s a lot of pride in.
“Physically [the shower was] very cold. Emotionally it feels good to have anything dumped over your head provided that it’s a win. For us to win at home, those are the times as coaches you feel like there’s a sense of accomplishment.”
The attention now turns to USC (7-4), which lost to rival California and lost starting quarterback Matt Barkley to a shoulder injury. After Saturday’s game at the Coliseum, the attention could be on Notre Dame’s first title berth in the BCS era. Along the way, many are hoping senior linebacker Manti Te’o is properly acknowledged for his role in pushing the Irish back into the national prominence.
The captain who has helped ND go 11-0 for the first time in 23 years, is the backbone of a defense that ranks No. 1 in the country in scoring defense (10.1 points per game), No. 6 in total defense (287.8 yards per game), No. 5 in rushing defense (92.2 ypg) and No. 11 in pass efficiency defense (104.6).
Te’o boasts eight forced turnovers (six interceptions and two fumble recoveries) and is on pace to become only the second Irish player in history to register at least 100 tackles in three consecutive seasons. He ranks third in Notre Dame history with 422 career stops and second among all active FBS players in career tackles.
“I think he should win the Heisman Trophy provided we continue to win,” Kelly said. “As it relates to Manti, he doesn’t talk much about it. He’s not focused on those things; he’s focused on the things we all know are important to him, and that is his team and how we play on Saturday. I’ll push for him; I think he should win the Heisman.
“The only thing we’ve talked about is he’s going to be with me after the USC game quite a bit because we have a lot of banquets and awards shows to be at. The only thing that I’ve talked to him about is the hope that we’ll be in New York together in a couple weeks.”