The Irish are head to Miami to take on Alabama for the 2013 BCS Championship.
"I was just proud of Notre Dame and proud of my players," said head coach Brian Kelly of the official announcement. "It was nice to be able to share that with your team with my family and our coaches families and our staff. Its a sense of pride. I'm happy our players could share that with everybody else in the room."
The eight days since a 22-13 victory at chief rival USC have served as a dreamscape for the program and its fans. Reality hit about 8 p.m. last night when defending national champion (not to mention 2009 national champion) Alabama and head coach Nick Saban became the second team deemed worthy to square off for the 2012 season's Crystal Trophy.
"Everybody notices size and strength and physicality," said Kelly of watching the Tide defeat Georgia 32-28 last night in Atlanta's SEC Championship game. "What really stood out to me was, they were going to exert their will. It didn't matter that they were down (21-10 and 28-25), they were going to run the football. They were going to go with their strength.
"I like watching teams that want to beat you mentally as well as physically," he continued. "They mentally won that game as much as they did physically."
The teams finished No. 1 (Notre Dame) and No. 2 ('Bama) in scoring defense with the Crimson Tide holding a slight edge in total defense, rush defense, pass efficiency defense, first downs allowed, and red zone defense.
The Irish defense yielded seven fewer touchdowns (9/16) albeit in one less game.
In good health, considering…Four months coupled with 12 Saturdays of major college football (there's no West Carolina on the Irish slate), inevitably takes its toll on a team's roster. Notre Dame operated most of the 2012 season with fewer than 75 healthy bodies despite an 85-man scholarship limit.
It appears though most injuries were relegated to camp and early September, as Kelly expects all hands on deck for January 7.
"Louis Nix has a wrist (injury) but he's had two very good days of weight-training and conditioning," said Kelly. "I really think that from a health standpoint, there's nobody that wouldn't be able to practice on Friday.
"We got out of the USC game pretty good and if we were playing yesterday, we would have had, probably even Zack (Martin) for the game. We kept him in a (ankle) boot for five days and he responded very well today."
Also on the mend and likely thankful for an extended layoff between the regular season and title game is DaVaris Daniels, felled by a broken collarbone on November 10 at Boston College.
"He's doing really well. He started moving his shoulder the first week after (freshman) Chris Brown caught a couple of passes out there, it was really quick medicine for him and he's been on the fast track ever since," Kelly joked.
"Week Five (post injury/December 15) will be full contact for him. He's running already. We will have non-contact with him starting on Friday. We want to get to some specific route-running and some change of direction stuff but he's making great progress."
Any advice…besides the obvious?Notre Dame's bowl preparation practice plan won't change much from season's past. Young players will still get the majority of early reps while seniors stay in shape and preserve their bodies for game night.
But practice plans for the Sun Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl seem incidental in comparison to the BCS Championship game, and Kelly solicited the advice of those in the know: LSU (2011) and Oregon (2010), the last two teams to drop decisions on the main stage.
"What we were trying to do was confirm some of our thoughts relative to the schedule and how it should look," said Kelly of phone calls made to Les Miles and Chip Kelly. "We were pretty much right on with what we thought the schedule should look like leading into the championship game. It's a one game deal. We're just trying to be better than Alabama on Monday, January 7. So our entire focus will be on a one-game season, trying to be better on Monday, January 7.
"You can understand then: we don't want to be better than Alabama on the 27th of December. It was more about checking our work, calling those schools that had done that long layoff and we felt comfortable with those observations."
As for any advice LSU or Oregon could impart?
"Try to get another opponent," Kelly said.
The undefeated, top-ranked Irish are currently underdogs of 8.5 points vs. the defending champs.