Brian Kelly didn’t take the bait because there was no point in doing so.
Asked Wednesday morning after Notre Dame’s final practice before breaking for Christmas about the relative magnitude of beating Ohio State, the Irish head coach wanted no part of it.
Would beating the Buckeyes be the biggest win of his Notre Dame tenure? Bigger than beating USC to make the BCS National Championship Game? Bigger than winning championships at Grand Valley State? Bigger than winning conference titles at Cincinnati?
You get the point. Not only is there no right answer, there’s barely an answer at all.
“For me there’s 25 of the greatest victories in my 25 years because each year,” Kelly said. “How I’d characterize it? I’d have to sit down and do that when we do the book. It’s almost impossible to take one because each year is so different.”
Kelly admitted winning the Fiesta Bowl would be the biggest win of <I>this year</I>, which might not say much considering the other contenders are Temple, USC and Navy. It would also be Notre Dame’s first win over a defending national champion since 1998 when the Irish upset Michigan in South Bend. Notre Dame has played four defending champions since, losing a couple close (Florida State ’14 and USC ’05) and a couple not (Alabama ‘12, USC ’04).
What beating Ohio State could do is energize the off-season similarly to knocking off LSU in the Music City Bowl last year, although the Irish entered that one on a four-game skid. Still, that win ensured Notre Dame stayed in the spotlight all off-season and elevated its preseason ranking.
Beating the Buckeyes should guarantee the program’s first Top 5 finish in 22 years and inflate its poll position next August, even with significant roster attrition.
“Just looking for a defining moment,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “Just do something special for the University, I think that’s what it’s all about.
“You play against a high caliber team in Ohio State. We all wanted that opportunity and we’ve been granted it. It’s about taking advantage of every opportunity that we get.”
While the Fiesta Bowl is sure to impact the perception of Notre Dame all spring and summer, it figures to have little to do with the actual next season. The Irish have lost six straight major bowl games but won at least nine games the following year three times. Twice they did enough to get back to a major bowl after losing one the year prior.
Notre Dame’s last major bowl win was the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M following the 1993 season. The Irish went 6-5-1 the following year.
Still, beat Ohio State and the narrative around Notre Dame football is a program replete with quarterback and running back depth, powered by a strong offensive line and some up-and-coming defensive talent.
“The best thing to spark up your off-season is to end on a win,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “We kind of understand that. Last year was a very up and down year and going into the off-season you don’t remember any of those up and downs because you just had a really good game against LSU. I saw that.
“You never know how it’s really going to affect things but I think a win against Ohio State would really spark an energy for us to get back out there and … know we can be a national champion. That would really set that goal right back where it needs to be as the biggest game of the season.”