Brian Kelly has already said that a Fiesta Bowl victory would be the team’s biggest win of the season. But on Wednesday, he put into context what a victory over Ohio State would mean to his program, three seasons removed from its BCS title game drubbing against Alabama.
“I think every bowl game, it’s a playoff game now. Somebody is going to finish fifth in the final polls. That’s a springboard for next year,” Kelly said Wednesday morning. “These are important games, you’re also measuring yourself in this game. ‘Where are we?’
“We measured ourselves in 2012, found out we were a little short. Now we’re back here in ’15-’16 and get a chance to measure ourselves again.”
That challenge will come against an Ohio State team that’s playing for history. A victory on Friday would make 50 wins over four seasons—tying the FBS record for the most by any senior class.
The Buckeyes could also provide validation. While the Irish weren’t up to the challenge against mighty Alabama in Kelly’s third season, Ohio State managed to slay the dragon last year. Toss away a late-season loss to Michigan State and a cupcake schedule done no favors by its weak conference opponents, the Buckeyes could easily make a case they’re more qualified to be a part of the four-team showdown than the mighty Alabama or an Oklahoma team that lost to Texas.
But Friday’s consolation matchup could be for more than just the No. 5 ranking. In a game that’ll have a load of NFL talent on both rosters and two of college football’s finest tacticians engaging in a chess match, Notre Dame won’t get a chance to play for the national title, but they will take center stage on college football’s grandest day. That’ll allow Kelly to finally go head-to-head with a coach many feel is the era’s best, as his injury-plagued team goes for its 11th victory against, just the second time it could accomplish that feat since 1993.
A Fiesta Bowl win would serve as more than just a springboard for the Irish in 2016. It could also silence—once and for all—any of the nonsense that “almost” is as good as it gets in South Bend.
“We want to win the game,” Kelly said, noting just how unique “Team 127” was as it battled through a challenge-filled year. “It will be a satisfying season that we overcame a lot of things to get to this point. Probably for me the most enjoyable, with the group of kids that we had that just didn’t let anything get in their way. They just kept moving forward.”