The Big Mo

Off-season talk regarding the 2011 Irish focused more on the team's 4-0 finish than 4-5 start last fall. But does perceived momentum from last November's three victories and subsequent Sun Bowl conquest have any bearing on Brian Kelly's squad this August?

On the heels of a 2008 Sheraton Bowl destruction of Hawaii, Notre Dame opened its 2009 season with a dominant 35-0 victory over what proved to be a quality Nevada team.

This website dubbed the effort: "Hawaii, 2.0" suggesting momentum had indeed carried over from what was an off-season full of good vibes.

Alas, blocking and tackling eventually won out over whatever mojo and self-belief the team had previously established, and losses plus a coaching change followed.

In August 2011, Notre Dame ranks as the most ballyhooed team coming off an 8-5 campaign in recent memory, with forecasts of imminent success derived largely from a 4-0 finish to 2010 during which the program morphed from mediocre 4-5 also-ran, to a legitimate Top 20-level unit.

It's a fact not lost on head coach Brian Kelly. And in fact, he's embraced that ephemeral sports notion known as "momentum" as it applies to his August-ready Irish.

"You don't ever lose the feeling of winning football games, consecutively," Kelly said of the team's 4-0 finish to 2010. "You never lose that feeling of knowing that you've prepared and were successful. That's called confidence.

"When people talk about momentum, what's momentum?" he continued. "Our players are gaining the confidence that if they prepare the right way, if they put in the time, if they pay attention to detail, they can win.

"They've carried that confidence into the summer. It's built upon winning but it's also allowed other things to emerge. Now that guys are confident in their abilities, they can start to lead. And when they start to lead they show others how to do that. It's a snowball effect, but it starts with winning"

Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson touched on this subject in the spring, noting "You can believe all you want, but until you see it produced on the field during game day, there's always a little feeling of ‘What else do we need to do? Is there anything fundamentally that we're doing wrong as a group?'

"I feel like we have that now, and have the confidence in our preparation and we realize what has been successful in games. A lot of it is a game day mentality, and knowing what you're going to do. You can practice all you want, but it has to translate to the game."

Over the last four outings, one vs. a ranked foe and two others vs. the school's most hated rivals – one consistent, one of halcyon days past – that belief translated into four victories. With a win over South Florida in the season opener, Notre Dame will have its first five-game winning streak since November 2006 – a fact as sobering in its reality as it is promising for the present.

Kelly, though likely unaware of the program's last five-game streak of success, is well-aware that his roster needs to foster this dose of well-founded self-belief.

"I want them to have good feelings about who they are and where they've come," he said. "I want to be in (Oklahoma coach) Bob Stoops' position today (pre-season #1).

"That's why we're here; we want to be part of the conversation as a championship-caliber football team. We're not there yet," he admitted of the pre-season #18 Irish. "We're thrown in the mix: #18 to #25: pick a number out of the hat," Kelly said, indicating anything outside the top tier is irrelevant in August.

"Right now we're being recognized a little bit because of what we did at the end of the year and because we're Notre Dame. That's not where we want to be."

As for tempering his team's enthusiasm or keeping under control its soon-to-be expanding opinion of their own worth?

"The way we go to work and the way they practice for me…let's just say I don't walk around with my ‘Top 25 T-shirt' on," he said.

As Irish fans learned early in 2009 – the last campaign under Charlie Weis' guidance – off-season momentum coupled with an impressive opening win means little as the college football season progresses and the leaves begin to fall.

South Florida and the 2011 season-opener awaits: the pairing brings what should be Notre Dame's toughest opening foe since at least the 2007 season (Georgia Tech) if not longer.

"We have to start better than we did last year, clearly," Kelly said of a 1-0 start that devolved into a 1-3 September finish. "Our focus is that we know our team, and we have a better sense of those things that are going to help us against South Florida."

Belief ranks high on that list, only this time it appears warranted. Top Stories