Still, one aspect of these matchups – 35 of them in all – is the reality that not all the athletes are thrilled with their assignment. Extra practices, a game that won't sell out or be played in a venue they've ever cared about.
According to Kelly, that's not the case for the Irish and this year's Sun Bowl, even if the December 31 afternoon kick-off offers less prestige than the program had hoped for when the season began.
"Let's face it. Nobody has their eyes set on the Sun Bowl when you start the season," Kelly admitted. "Nobody does. But you are playing Miami in a bowl game. It sold out in 24 hours; it's a great matchup that goes back (to the past). I think the Miami thing helped a lot. (Finishing) 7-6 vs. 8-5. Playing Miami. We've talked about the game itself."
It certainly fired up the teams' fan bases, and the Hurricanes' championship success in the early portion of this decade is well-known by today's college athletes who were immersed in the sport when the likes of Willis McGahee, Ed Reed and Jonathan Vilma were dominating college football.
"It feels great to play them even though its maybe not a BCS game," said Michael Floyd of the matchup with the ‘Canes. "Growing up you see them…now you're lucky to be a part of it."
As for the recent "30 for 30" special dedicated to the Miami dynasty of the 80s, a portion of which featured the rivalry with the Irish, consider Floyd a fan.
"I thought it was great. Just seeing how the rules have changed now. You can't have that much fun like they had back in the day. It was a good show.
"Watching that you get a look at how big this (rivalry) is. I feel great to be a part of this; to play them. Two huge football programs and to play in a (matchup) that back in the day was one of the biggest games of all time."
As noted, the game sold out with little effort…though Floyd did lend a hand, sending a recorded phone message to season ticket holders and text messages to others.
(Note: Yes, I did get the phone call from my South Bend-based parents stating: "Tim, Michael Floyd called me today…")
"I think wherever we go its always sold out, but a lot of the attention building up to this game is the history behind it. I'm glad to be a part of it."
The last day of this year…the rest of the nextWhile Floyd has had the luxury of pre-game time to better understand the magnitude of the ND/UM rivalry, Kelly has been busy balancing his necessary forward thinking with those who helped deliver a post-season berth.
"We started with talking about how important it is for this game to really reflect being the first game for 2011," he offered and was immediately asked about those team members that won't be on hand to enjoy the fruits of that preparation.
"I believe that how you treat your seniors during the year is going to be a great indication to how they'll help you in this bowl game. And they've been terrific," Kelly said.
Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Ian Williams, Darrin Walls, Duval Kamara, Robert Hughes, Chris Stewart and Bobby Burger will all play their final games for the Irish in the Sun Bowl. As many as eight other seniors could apply for a 5th-year of eligibility: Taylor Dever, Gary Gray, Andrew Nuss, Emeka Nwankwo, Mike Ragone, Matt Romine, David Ruffer, Harrison Smith,
(Armando Allen remains out after November hip surgery; Brandon Walker hasn't kicked in two years due to a back injury and 5th-year senior Dan Wenger is expected to apply for a rare 6th-season of eligibility.)
2011 and beyond: Kelly offered a handful of first-year players that stood out when the group scrimmaged during the Week Ten Bye. A few of those resurfaced over the weekend when the rookies battled it out in a 15-minute scrimmage.
"We had a nice scrimmage with our young guys and there were a lot of things that were exciting," Kelly offered. "I would say that (nose guard) Louis Nix (stood out). I really like his play. (Linebacker) Kendall Moore stood out for me."
Both were mentioned a month ago as players on the rise, as was QB Andrew Hendrix of whom noted "did some nice things," in the most recent scrimmage.
"Offensively, Daniel Smith (played well) and Cam Roberson was really a bit of a surprise for me," Kelly added. "His work volume was such that he took nearly every rep and we had about 35 plays, so he was a little tired at the end but those guys stood out. For me it was nice to see those guys go out and play pretty fast. It was good tempo."
Smith, a 6'4" 210-pound wide receiver from South Bend Clay, saw time late in the season on Irish special teams, recovering a fumble vs. Utah that led to an Irish score. Roberson was withheld from action this year as the team's No. 5 running back. Two members of that group won't be in the mix this spring, allowing the Newbury Park (CA) product to compete for a lead or support role with sophomore Cierre Wood and junior Jonas Gray.
Spring clean-upKelly reported no "front line" injuries leading up to this week though sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o did have surgery to repair a broken nose suffered vs. Army in Game 11.
Two potential 2011 competitors had surgery in preparation for March and the 15-practice Spring session.
"(Dan) McCarthy had shoulder surgery; he had some difficulty with (the same shoulder) last spring," Kelly said while refuting rumors that McCarthy's August hamstring injury was the cause of his late-season disappearance. "A lot of the focus on Dan was his hamstring but that has come through well. (His shoulder) was re-injured, and we just thought it was prudent to get it taken care of now, so we wouldn't be into spring ball without him being able to participate, because its an important spring for him."
McCarthy will be a senior next fall though he has two seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out his freshman year due to a neck injury. He appeared in seven games this season, the latest date Week Nine vs. Tulsa.
Also on the mend is sophomore nose guard Tyler Stockton who made his collegiate debut vs. Purdue in the season opener, played in the next five games and then late vs. Navy in Game Eight, but did not see action over the final five weeks.
"They cleaned up Tyler Stockton's shoulder. He'd been playing most of this year, in terms of his work on Scout Team, with a shoulder that needed to get scoped. We ended up waiting until the last game and finishing the season," Kelly said.
"We took him with us to LA because that was his bowl game. He's not going to be able to do anything for us in the Bowl Game so we took him there for his reward of doing a great job during the year, and got him cleaned up for the same reason (as McCarthy), to have him back for the spring."
Still out due to illness is freshman linebacker and early season special teams maven Danny Spond.
"He's been fighting a viral illness. He's been back in the health center (infirmary) again," Kelly said. "He's been hit with a couple of bugs – we thought it was food poisoning, it turned out to be an infection. He's just been battling it off and on now for the last couple of months."
Spond appeared in seven games, exclusively as a member of the special teams, though he did rise to No. 2 on multiple game week depth charts at inside linebacker.