SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A couple of weeks ago, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked how much attention he has been paying to the ACC results in this cameo season as a full league member.
The answer: Not much.
“I know Clemson’s good,” Kelly said Oct. 12. “Other than knowing Clemson’s -really good, that’s about it.”
So it probably should come as no surprise that Kelly recently violated the hallowed “one game at a time” rule football coaches have been clinging to since the days of Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Coming off a 12-7 snoozer of a win at home over Louisville, Kelly began ratcheting up the intensity and holding his team to a higher standard. The all-important showdown with top-ranked Clemson on Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium was fast approaching. So he figured it might be OK to look past overmatched Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech ever so slightly.
A 45-3 road win over the hapless Panthers last week was Step 1 in the process. This weekend brings a trip to Atlanta, where the 2-4 Yellow Jackets await in what should be a tuneup for the No. 4 Irish.
After that, it’s on to mighty Clemson, which might be without superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence because of a positive test for COVID-19. In some ways, the Irish are already there.
“I think it’s implicit,” Kelly said this week. “Our guys know who’s on the schedule and what we have to do to win a championship. Here’s what I say exactly: The acronym WIN means ‘What’s Important Now,’ but it also means ‘What’s Important Next.’ ”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney spent part of his postgame news conference last Saturday pushing back against questions about why the Tigers, as 48-point favorites, led miserable Syracuse by just six points late in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Kelly publicly shared his broad vision on what it would take for the Irish to compete with the Tigers.
“Certainly we’re going to prepare the right way for Georgia Tech,” Kelly said. “That’s what’s important now. But the way you play and how you play sets you up for what’s next. What’s next is you know what you need to do to win a championship and who you have to play down the road.”
This might be a good time to point out Notre Dame’s 5-0 start has been built against opponents with a combined 9-22 record and a cumulative scoring differential of minus-129. Two of those opponents’ wins have come against Syracuse, while other victims have included Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, The Citadel and Jacksonville State.
That’s no way to build up your strength of schedule to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee. And post-Clemson dates with Boston College, Syracuse, North Carolina and Wake Forest won’t offer much SOS juice either.
So, yeah, it’s all about beating Clemson. Do that, and perhaps Notre Dame will be able to match the Dodgers in ending its identical 32-year championship drought.
“That was implicit in that conversation instead of having to say, ‘Hey, guys, in a couple weeks we’re playing Clemson — wink, wink, wink,’ ” Kelly said. “We didn’t need to do that. Our guys are pretty smart. We’ve got a schedule up in our team room where they look at it every day.
“What I needed to tell them is just focusing on winning is not enough. It’s the way you play the game and the way you compete and at what level you compete that is what translates down the road.”
Kelly’s players got the message.
“It was kind of a relief,” sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Honestly, I think it hyped us up because we stopped going into games thinking, ‘OK, let’s just get a win.’ His message to us put something in our minds that 12-7 wins over Louisville aren’t acceptable.”
Not if the Irish want to stay on the same field with Travis Etienne and friends when they visit South Bend. Their last meeting was a 30-3 laugher in the Cotton Bowl in 2018.
“We need to be doing better than that, and we are better than that,” Hamilton said of the Louisville squeaker. “We’re trying to win games, but we’re trying to win games by a lot. We’re trying to dominate other teams.”