This Saturday in Chicago, head coach Brian Kelly faces the new "biggest game" of his short time in South Bend. Coming off a bye week, under the eyes of the nation, with a budding quarterback controversy against a Miami team that's proven itself explosive, we'll get a chance to see if this Notre Dame team is up for the challenge.
Kelly has spent the bulk of his tenure at Notre Dame in relative obscurity—at least as obscure as the head coach of one of college football's true major national teams can get. The team has not been in the title discussion; BCS bowls haven't been on their plate or just out of grasp. No, for Kelly's first two seasons this was a team that did its work in the Sun Bowl and Champs Sports Bowl.
Notre Dame has spent most of its time unranked, and while Irish fans have obsessed over the team, the games that mattered were either being played elsewhere or saw the Fighting Irish doing little more than filling the spoiler's role.
Now, that proverbial shoe is on the other foot. That always popular table has been turned. Notre Dame sits in the Top 10 for the first time since the 2006 season that saw it dance in and around that rarefied air for most of the season. It's now 2012, and the offensive tilt of 2006 has been replaced with a defensive toughness built around the front seven.
This is Saturday night, prime time, broadcast television at 7:30 pm. Eyeballs will be on the Irish. Yeah, Georgia and South Carolina are playing on cable. Yes, West Virginia and Texas will be getting it on over on Fox. But make no mistake—there will be ample eyeballs tuned into the Irish, as people are now paying attention and want to find out just how for real this Irish team can be.
Certainly the Michigan game was a big deal; folks saw Notre Dame struggle to victory at home against a team everyone's No. 1 completely dismantled on a neutral site. Now, at their own neutral-site affair, Notre Dame faces a team that's played better than most expected this season in a game that could push the Irish even further up in the polls.
However, the road to victory will not be easy. While the hype surrounding the game and the old nickname, which I've decided to refuse to use in association with this game, is growing on its own, the real issues loom large enough to dwarf the nostalgia.
Offensively, Notre Dame has issues. For all of the praise its highly touted defensive front seven has received, the offensive line, a perceived strength, has been a tremendous disappointment. It is not moving bodies at the point of attack, and the rushing game that was to be the backbone of the Irish offense has yet to materialize on a consistent basis.
In this game against Miami, the Irish have to get on track.
This is where Kelly's guys have to start proving that they can be the focal point of the offense.
Adding to the pressure surrounding this game? The quarterback spot.
The run game hasn't worked, and the passing game has not worked under the direction of Everett Golson either. The first-year starter looks to be getting another chance, and he'll be taking it against a Miami defense that surrendered 440 passing yards a weekend ago to NC State.
If ever there was a time for Golson to grab the offense by the horns, this is it. Miami is young and undisciplined, and on the big stage Golson has to show folks that he's the right choice.
Last time the Irish were in front of the world, it took Tommy Rees coming in to get the win. In fact, two of the four wins the Irish have were due to Rees relieving Golson of his duties.
If you can't go horn to horn, it makes it tough for the team, coaching staff and fanbase to trust in you as "the guy." For Brian Kelly, in his biggest game to date, getting a W, with or without Golson, is job one; we'll see if the second-year player can last the whole game.
This game is big. A win can keep the Irish riding the highs of being "back" on the national landscape from a competition standpoint. A loss would invite the same rhetoric we've heard for over a half decade: overrated, getting by on history and the like.
This Miami football team is just dangerous enough to pull off the upset, and Kelly has to get his boys ready to go out and play sound football across the board.
It's Kelly's first game as a Top 10 coach since 2009 and the true first as the head of this Irish program. The pressure is on, and we'll see how the fiery head coach responds to the pressure of the eyes of the nation.