But three years into the job, he’s right where he needs to be — and getting plenty of help in making those hopes a reality as soon as this year.
Kelly has navigated the Irish to an 11-0 record this season, and while the critics have had plenty to say about Notre Dame’s strength of schedule, and the boost the Irish got from several questionable calls throughout the season, no one can argue that they are at last beyond the other teams that entered this weekend without a loss. That’s because Notre Dame beat Wake Forest 38-0 Saturday afternoon, while Oregon (10-1) and Kansas State (10-1) both lost.
A championship game hope that seemed a long shot as recently as Friday — and which had Kelly saying he’d go on Oprah (nevermind the show not being around anymore) to argue his case — is very close to actually happening. Notre Dame is now ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press poll, with Alabama No. 2. Oregon and Kansas State, meanwhile, must lick their wounds and hope for a lesser bowl game.
The change of fate couldn’t come at a better time for the Irish, who now need only fend off USC next Saturday to remain unbeaten — a suddenly lonesome moniker now that the other BCS heavyweights have all fallen at least once. (As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Oregon, Kansas State, Alabama and Notre Dame seemed to be an indomitable four-headed monster that could have ended the season unbeaten across the board, which would have left many people unhappy when just two teams would have been picked for the title game.)
While USC will present a challenge as Notre Dame’s final opponent, the Irish are facing the Trojans at what appears to be the perfect time, with quarterback Matt Barkley at least bruised — if not out for the rest of the season — after reportedly separating his right shoulder in Saturday’s loss to UCLA. It’s the latest helpful push in a season that has been full of them for the Irish, and Notre Dame needs just one more win to secure what seemed an improbable goal just a little while ago.
Notre Dame hasn’t won a national title since 1988, but it’s gotten the ball to bounce its way in every way this year (insert luck of the Irish jokes here). And while a championship game pitting the offenses of K-State or Oregon against one of the SEC teams that everyone would love to see lose would have been interesting to watch, the return of the Irish to the biggest stage — against a one-loss SEC team that could arguably be the best in the nation — could bring just as much intrigue. The SEC will almost certainly have a representative in the title game now, with Alabama needing to beat Auburn to win the SEC East and then face Florida or Georgia in the SEC title game. The winner out of those matchups will have enough victories and quality opponents to get into the title game — but it will also have a Notre Dame team waiting that is the only group in college football that hasn’t figured out how to lose yet.
With one week left, the college football ranks could get tipped again. But there’s good reason to think that the Irish, who have pushed the “just do enough” playbook to the max this year, will hang on for one more week. A challenger will emerge from the SEC as the conference tries to avoid devouring itself, and those two teams will play for it all.
And Kelly won’t worry about things like Oprah not working out, because for him, just three years into a plan where he was supposed to work miracles within a few short years, everything else has.