Once upon a time, Brian Kelly wasn’t the coach who regularly beat himself up for never winning a national championship at Notre Dame.
He was just a guy who had turned around a Mid-American Conference program and moved up the ladder a rung to a non-power in a bigger conference. Many had pulled off that sort of thing before him, and many have since.
But few have launched as spectacularly as Kelly did at Cincinnati, then of the Big East.
In three full seasons there, from 2007 to 2009, he won 33 games and delivered the school’s second, third and fourth double-digit-victory campaigns ever. He won two Big East titles, his teams reaching the Orange and Sugar bowls. His name became as hot as any at the college level outside of Urban Meyer and Nick Saban.
Not often has Kelly found himself at the center of such pure excitement since. He has won more games — 106 — than any Irish coach, but it’s never enough. Not without that title.
Why is No. 7 Cincinnati (-1½) at No. 9 Notre Dame (1:30 p.m., Ch. 5) such a big deal?
One, it’s a heck of a reunion — the first meeting between the Bearcats and Irish in 121 years — and a scheduling bouquet from Kelly to his former school. Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman (a former Bears draft pick in 2009) also worked in the same role at Cincinnati from 2017 to 2020, and Bearcats offensive architect Mike Denbrock spent seven years on Kelly’s staff in South Bend, Indiana.
Two, both teams are undefeated — and the winner will sink its teeth into College Football Playoff contention.
And isn’t it kind of wild that the Irish — a 4-0 team coming off a playoff season — are underdogs?
‘‘They understand what protecting the home field is,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘I mean, they’ve done it 26 times in a row.’’
To get that home winning streak to 27, the Irish want to see quarterback Jack Coan and his balky ankle go the distance and — perhaps more important — Freeman’s defense limit big plays from terrific Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder.
How good are the Bearcats? Some think Luke Fickell has coached ’em up to a far higher level than Kelly ever did. Think: pretty much Big Ten-like size and strength throughout the roster.
‘‘This is much more about two top-10 teams,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘You’ve got to go out and attack your opponent. I mean, you can’t sit around and wait. This is a heavyweight fight. If you’re just going to dance around and wait, you’re going to get knocked out.’’
Who hits the canvas? Irish 27 (see what we did there?), Bearcats 21.
OTHER WEEK 5 PICKS
Charlotte (+11) at Illinois (11 a.m., BTN): A point of reference: The 49ers beat Duke, which beat Northwestern. So, you know, don’t think this is a layup for the Illini. But this is a team Illinois should be able to run on, and there’s nothing Bret Bielema’s team needs more than a few hours of handing the ball off and seeing big fellas open some holes up front. Still, a layup? It’s not basketball season yet, folks. Illini, 30-24.
Eastern Michigan (+1½) at Northern Illinois (11 a.m., ESPN+): Huskies coach Thomas Hammock is 0-2 against the Eagles. That’s quite a thing, considering NIU won 17 of 18 head-to-head before Rod Carey left for Temple. Hammock needs this one. NIU by a field goal.
Northwestern (+11½) at Nebraska (6:30 p.m., BTN): The Huskers have played back-to-back excellent games and lost them both. The Wildcats have been less than stellar from the jump. Three times in the last four seasons, though, Team Purple has found a way to win this game. Is there an upset in the air? Huskers, 21-20.
No. 8 Arkansas (+17) at No. 2 Georgia (11 a.m., ESPN): With hardly any flash, the Hogs have been shockingly effective. Is this the real deal? Still feels like more of a seven- or eight-win season, to be honest. Dogs, 30-7.
No. 12 Mississippi (+14½) at No. 1 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): You just know Rebels coach Lane Kiffin is drop-dead positive he’s got an upset cooking. And Nick Saban isn’t laughing. Tide, 38-30.
No. 21 Baylor (+3½) at No. 19 Oklahoma State (6 p.m., ESPN2): Dang, both these teams are 4-0? Neither is as good as that sounds. Pokes, 27-20.
My favorite favorite: No. 3 Oregon (-8) at Stanford (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): No real pressure from the Cardinal pass rush equals pitch-and-catch for the Ducks.
My favorite underdog: No. 14 Michigan (+2) at Wisconsin (11 a.m., Fox-32): We’re still doing this pretend-the-Badgers-are-good thing? Really?
Last week: 7-1 straight-up, 4-4 against the spread.
Season to date: 27-12 straight-up, 24-15 against the spread.