Notre Dame got what it wanted.
And if you thought Brian Kelly was looking for an easy matchup to become the first Irish head coach to win eight games or more in each of his first five seasons, think again.
“We wanted to be challenged again,” Kelly said, when discussing the formidable draw of LSU for the Music City Bowl on December 30. “There’s no sense going into this bowl game situation and feeling like you’re not going to be challenged.
“I feel like there are matchups there that don’t give you the same kind of challenge. This is one that we wanted.”
You get the feeling Kelly wasn’t speaking for Irish fans. Forget about the Sugar Bowl trouncing after the 2006 season, a game that showed the ocean between Charlie Weis’ best team and the SEC elite. After watching Notre Dame get creamed against USC in Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend, a segment of Irish fans were saying to skip a bowl game all together.
But that’s not how you build a football program. So even if the difference between a seven-win season and an eight-game campaign is largely insignificant, Kelly expects to accomplish a lot in the next three weeks.
With the Irish coaching staff on the road recruiting until later this week, Notre Dame will meet for their first practice this Friday. It’ll be the first of eight scheduled in South Bend, before getting another handful of practices in down in Nashville. All with the aim of not just notching what would be their most impressive victory on the season, but building the foundation for 2015.
“The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are. There’s competition,” Kelly said. “There’s competition at all positions. So we’ll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity.”
It appears that some of the injuries that plagued the Irish against USC could be on the mend. Kelly’s optimistic that safety Max Redfield can return from a rib injury. He also expects Greer Martini to be back. Same for cornerback Cody Riggs, taking on a familiar foe in his final collegiate game. There’s hope for Sheldon Day as well.
With a commitment to physical play during bowl prep, Kelly will do whatever it takes — even flipping some reserve offensive linemen to the opposite side of the ball so the Irish can go full tilt.
That type of work during bowl season will be key as the roster has little turnover from 2014 to 2015, but desperately needs to identify what it takes to go from the inconsistent team that crumbled down the stretch to a group with lofty postseason aspirations.
“This is really about improving our football team more than anything else and improving the play,” Kelly said. “As I told our football team, I really haven’t had much problem with this group in terms of their preparation and the way that they work. They put in the time. We’re just a sloppy team on Saturday.
“So we have to find out what’s that component? Why is that occurring? What are those things that are happening? So we’ve got to clean up what Saturday is about. Some of that is communication, trust. Some of that is confidence in your ability to go out and do your job. So this will allow us to really reinforce some of those things over the next three weeks.”
There is work to be done. And then there is a very difficult football game to win.
Les Miles’ Tigers feature the fourth top-ten defense the Irish will face this season. They took Nick Saban’s Alabama team to overtime this November. They knocked Ole Miss from the playoff hunt.
Long odds against a group that lost to Northwestern this November? To say the least.
But there might not be a better way to let a young football team know what it takes to win than stack them up against one of the SEC’s elite programs. Even if on paper it looks like a suicide mission.
“We think we’re going to be a really good football team. We’ve got some things that we have to clear up and address on Saturday,” Kelly said. “We’re, obviously, a few plays here and there from having a really good football season and talking about different situations.
“But we are who we are, and we think that this game in particular allows us to continue to not paint a false picture of who we are, but where we need to get better as we look towards 2015.”