In most instances during the college football regular season, with games predominately playing out the way they were intended, the better team defeats the team that falls short talent-wise.
In bowl games, particularly with sometimes as much as five weeks between games, other factors come into play.
Saturday, following Notre Dame’s fifth practice since the conclusion of the regular season, Brian Kelly said depth and the ability to recreate the contact that permeated the lives of the players for the better part of 17 weeks must be present when the kickoff for that bowl game finally arrives.
“I’m a big believer that with the time off that you have, you have to go out and create live opportunities for your team, tackle and bang around,” Kelly said.
“We’ve got better depth where we can go out and do those kinds of things. I would say that’s one thing that’s specific to this football program here at Notre Dame, and we can do that now.”
Without the right frame of mind, however, talent and depth can be overshadowed. Misplaced emotions – or a lack of emotion altogether – creates upsets…or complete collapses.
“You (have to make) sure the players understand that it’s really about your attitude,” Kelly said. “Are you committed to this game? If you’re not committed to playing the game, just let us know because I’ll go home early and we’ll spend time with our families.
“If you’re really committed to this game – in other words, you don’t have one foot out the door because you’re worried about your draft status and you’re thinking about other things – if you’re fully committed to this game, we’ll be fully committed to you.”
The significance of a proper attitude played out last year in Nashville when Notre Dame took on LSU in the Music City Bowl.
The Irish were as devastated as a team could be upon the conclusion of the regular season, losing a pair of three-pointers at home to Northwestern and Louisville, which were sandwiched by a 24-point loss to Arizona State and a 35-point whitewashing by USC.
Notre Dame concluded the 2014 regular season in tatters.
Even a month of preparation didn’t seem enough for Kelly and his staff to rally the troops for a minor bowl trip to Nashville to take on Les Miles’ Tigers.
Yet the Irish came out and played inspired, physical football against running back Leonard Fournette and the Tigers. LSU wasn’t meek either. Fournette rushed for 143 of the Tigers’ 285 yards, but Notre Dame made a commitment to a physical style of play as well, rushing a season-high 51 times for 263 yards in a last-second 31-28 victory.
A year later, falling just a few points short of making the college football playoff, Notre Dame appears to remain inspired while some might question Ohio State’s motivation on the heels of a national championship in 2014.
A Kelly revelation Saturday put some perspective on Notre Dame’s mindset.
“Every year we put the names on the back of the (bowl) jerseys,” Kelly said. “The seniors came to me said, ‘Coach, we don’t want names on the backs of our jerseys. We’re Team 127’”.
Putting names on the back of the Notre Dame’s bowl jerseys has been one of the few “flamboyant” allowances through the years. After the game, the players keep those jerseys, perhaps ultimately framing them as a memento, a lifelong keepsake.
It’s another sign to Kelly – even as seniors prepare to depart and players with college eligibility inquire about their NFL draft status – that Team 127 remains fully engaged.
“I’m just trying to stay out of their way at this point and not mess it up because they clearly have a direction as to where they want to go and how they want to play,” Kelly said.
“We’ve kind of picked up where we left off. They know they have to play well, execute well. As it relates to who they are, that hasn’t changed at any time during the year.”
The “it’s a marathon not a sprint” mentality also comes into play. After a layoff from contact, you have to ease your way back into a more physical mode. Notre Dame’s first contact came in bowl practice No. 5.
Kelly didn’t overextended the Irish on the practice field as they emerged from final exams.
“(Saturday) we went an hour and 20 minutes, which is the longest practice we’ve had in our first five,” Kelly said. “We probably won’t go past an hour and 40 minutes. Short, intense, fast-paced.”
Kelly is 5-3 in bowl games – 3-2 at Notre Dame and 2-1 at Cincinnati. His counterpart in the Fiesta Bowl – Urban Meyer – is 9-2 in post-season play with three national title conquests.
To say Kelly “learned his lesson” after the national championship shellacking handed down by Alabama three years ago would be a bit misleading. He would have preferred contact leading up to that game, but a lack of depth put restraints on the preparation.
Notre Dame has improved its depth considerably since that 42-14 loss to Alabama. Kelly should be able to have as much contact as he’d like leading up to the Jan. 1 game with the Buckeyes.
“Early on (during his tenure at Notre Dame), one of the things we weren’t really able to do was tackle (during bowl prep),” Kelly said. “I’m a big believer that with the time off that you have, you have to have live opportunities. You’ve got to go out and create live opportunities for your team, tackle and bang around.
“In our first few years here, we weren’t able to do that. We’ve got better depth where we can go out and do those kinds of things. That’s one thing that’s specific to this football program here at Notre Dame, and we can do that now.”
No limits, no excuses as the Irish continue their preparation for Ohio State.