The No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be entering their first experience in the College Football Playoff when they take on the second-ranked Clemson Tigers in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Dec. 29 (4 p.m., ESPN).
While making it to the playoff could be defined as a “legacy” defining moment for the Fighting Irish, they see it as the first step on a journey to a national title.
“This is really a focus group on wanting to win a national championship, and it’s been that way since we started this journey in January, beating Clemson,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said at the Fighting Irish’s media day. “Each and every week during the year, we didn’t really talk about, hey, let’s beat Michigan and what that does for us. It got us to 1-0.
“So there really hasn’t been much talk. … Certainly they understand that they’ve got to stay focused on their process, but they’ve listened to everybody talk about how they are underdogs. So there’s a little bit of that. But this is really about keeping this going and winning a football game, more so than any of the big picture stuff.”
Not focusing on the “big picture stuff,” like being 13-point underdogs to the Tigers, is a byproduct of the type of players they recruit.
And also the fact that they live inside the bubble of being an independent school that has their season scrutinized at the start of every season.
“Some of it is in the DNA of who we recruit, that they are really focused,” Kelly said. “But most of it is traits that are built over time. And we have to do a really good job of demanding that from our players, especially here.
“They’re hearing about it from the very start of the season, how it’s make or break every game. Notre Dame, you’re playing for a national championship. There’s no conference championship. One loss could put you in a difficult position for getting to your goal.”
One loss for the Fighting Irish or the Clemson in the CFP will definitely cost them a shot at the national title and would end the season.
For Kelly’s Fighting Irish to get over the hump and play for their first national title since the 2012 BCS national championship, he understands that his defense must get past the dynamic duo of running back Travis Etienne and quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
“I think the running back, Etienne, I think he’s as good a running back as we’ve seen since Georgia of last year, that kind of talent,” Kelly said. “The quarterback is really good. He’s got great arm talent. He’s tall and can see the field. I think the receiving corps is on par with a USC receiving corps. That’s a pretty dynamic offensive set.”
Those two combined with a defense that is a “really, really formidable group” mean the Fighting Irish squad will need to block out the outside noise and focus on their job if they want to win the Cotton Bowl.
“Certainly they understand that they’ve got to stay focused on their process, but they’ve listened to everybody talk about how they are underdogs,” Kelly said. “So there’s a little bit of that. But this is really about keeping this going and winning a football game, more so than any of the big picture stuff.”